Mars Jappie van Zyl outlook ridge helicopter
A ridge on Mars has been named after the late Jappie van Zyl, the Namibian engineer behind the Mars helicopter. Stock photo: iStockPhoto

A piece of real estate on planet Mars has been named after a Namibian man, Jakob (Japie) van Zyl, who studied at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, obtaining an honours degree in electronic engineering in 1979.

Van Zyl was the leader of the team that created Ingenuity Mars Helicopter which yesterday made history – becoming  the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet! (Watch below.)

Sadly Van Zyl did not live to see this incredible achievement. The 64-year-old passed away in August 2020, after suffering a heart attack in California, where he lived. He did at least see the launch, a month before he died, of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity to the red planet.

The 49cm-high solar-powered helicopter was deployed by Perseverance rover two weeks ago, and yesterday became airborne at 12h33 Mars time (09h34 SA time).  It achieved an altitude of 3 metres and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds, said NASA.

Van Zyl’s Overlook

This incredible feat was filmed and observed by Perseverance from a ridge nearby which has been named Van Zyl Overlook, in honour of the exceptional electrical engineer.

Mars Japie van Zyl
A ridge on Mars has been named after Namibian Japie van Zyl. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In its announcement about Van Zyl Overlook last month, NASA described Van Zyl as being the team’s longtime colleague, mentor, and leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

“Van Zyl joined JPL in 1986 and served in crucial roles at the Lab over a 33-year career, including as director for the Astronomy and Physics Directorate, associate director for project formulation and strategy, and finally director for the Solar System Exploration Directorate.

“As leader of solar system exploration at JPL, he oversaw successful operations of such NASA missions as Juno, Dawn, and Cassini, the implementation of the Mars InSight lander and MarCO CubeSats, as well as ongoing development of Europa Clipper, Psyche, and all of JPL’s instruments and Ingenuity.”

Although Van Zyl was an expat for over three decades, he regularly returned home and encouraged youngsters in Namibia and South Africa to become scientists.

Mars helicopter Japie van Zyl
This image from NASA’s Perseverance rover shows the agency’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter right after it successfully completed a high-speed spin-up test. It was captured by the Mastcam-Z instrument on Perseverance on April 16, 2021 (the 55th sol, or Martian day, of the rover’s mission). The image has been slightly processed (stretched and cropped). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Van Zyl Outlook is not the first landform to be named on Mars. Large craters have been named after other important scientists or science fiction writers. Smaller craters have been given the names of towns and villages on Earth. The Columbia Hills was named after the seven astronauts who tragically died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

SpaceX CEO – and former South African schoolboy – Elon Musk is determined to retire on Mars. He says he’s confident that SpaceX will be able to fly humans to Mars by 2026.

Mars helicopter photo Japie van Zyl
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took this shot while hovering over the Martian surface on April 19, 2021, during the first instance of powered, controlled flight on another planet. It used its navigation camera, which autonomously tracks the ground during flight. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

First Video of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter in Flight

In this video captured by NASA’s Perseverance rover (from Van Zyl Outlook), the agency’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took the first powered, controlled flight on another planet on April 19, 2021:

WATCH Archive footage with NASA’s Dr Jacob van Zyl