NASA’s Ingenuity mini-helicopter has survived its first night alone on the frigid surface of Mars, the US space agency said, hailing it as “a major milestone” for the tiny craft as it prepares for its first flight.
The ultra-light aircraft was dropped on the surface on Saturday after detaching from the belly of the Perseverance rover, which touched down on Feb. 18.
Detached from the Perseverance, Ingenuity had to rely on its own solar-powered battery to run a vital heater to protect its unshielded electrical components from freezing and cracking during the bitter Martian night, where temperatures can plunge as low as minus-90°C.
Making it through the frigid Martian night was “a major milestone for the small rotorcraft,” NASA said in a statement on Monday.
“This is the first time that Ingenuity has been on its own on the surface of Mars,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “But we now have confirmation that we have the right insulation, the right heaters, and enough energy in its battery to survive the cold night, which is a big win for the team. We’re excited to continue to prepare Ingenuity for its first flight test.”
Ingenuity the rest of this week is to undergo tests of its rotor blades and motors.
If all goes well, Ingenuity is expected to make its first flight attempt no earlier than Sunday, the laboratory said.
It would be the first aircraft to attempt powered, controlled flight on another planet.
Ingenuity is carrying a small piece of cloth that covered one of the wings of the aircraft brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright used to achieve the first powered flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, to pay tribute to the milestone.
Its planned attempt would also coincide with the 60th anniversary of the first human space flight, by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961, and 40th anniversary of the April 12, 1981, launch of the first space shuttle, Columbia.
Ingenuity would be attempting to fly in an atmosphere that is 1 percent the density of Earth’s, but it would be assisted by gravity that is one-third of that on Earth.
The first flight would involve climbing to a height of 3m, hovering there for 30 seconds, then descending back to the surface.
A series of flights are planned over its mission lasting 30 Martian sols (31 Earth days).
“Our 30-sol test schedule is front-loaded with exciting milestones,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity deputy operations lead. “Whatever the future holds, we will acquire all the flight data we can within that timeframe.”
The US$85 million craft could revolutionize space exploration. Future aircraft could cover ground much quicker than rovers and explore more rugged terrain.
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