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Mars helicopter survives first major challenge ahead of maiden flight

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is just days away from a flight attempt that, if successful, will make it the first-ever aircraft to achieve powered flight on another planet.

Having been released from the underbelly of the Perseverance Mars rover and set down on the Martian surface this past weekend, the Mars helicopter then had to take on a major challenge: Surviving its first frigid night on the red planet.

Following a nail-biting wait for followers of NASA’s latest Mars mission, a tweet from the space agency on Monday, April 5, confirmed that Ingenuity had emerged fighting fit from its first night alone on Mars.

“Safe and sound on the surface!” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is overseeing the mission, said in the tweet, adding that the aircraft had made it through the night on a planet “where surface temps can drop as low as -130° F (-90° C).”

Safe and sound on the surface! Our Ingenuity #MarsHelicopter survived the first cold night on its own, a major milestone on the Red Planet, where surface temps can plunge as low as -130° F (-90° C). Its first flight attempt will be no sooner than April 11:

— NASA (@NASA) April 5, 2021

The excellent news takes Ingenuity a major step toward its maiden flight, which could take place as early as Sunday, April 11.

To make sure the solar array on the helicopter’s rotors could begin receiving sunlight as quickly as possible, Perseverance was instructed to move away from Ingenuity immediately after deploying the aircraft from its underbelly. From their arrival on the planet on February 18 until the moment when Perseverance set Ingenuity down, the helicopter had been receiving all its power from the rover.

“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.”

The Mars helicopter weighs just 4 pounds (1.8 kg) and includes four rotors, each one about a meter long. A small boxlike fuselage contains the technology to power it as well as a now tried-and-tested heater that works with the rotors’ solar arrays. It also includes a downward-facing camera that will scan and capture images of the planet’s surface once it gets off the ground.

The plan is to send Ingenuity on five separate flights of increasing difficulty. While the first one will involve a relatively simple hover, the final one could see it flying for up to 300 meters.

The main aim of Ingenuity’s mission is to demonstrate that it’s possible to fly a rotorcraft in Mars’ superthin atmosphere. NASA also wanted to prove it can handle extremely cold temperatures, with that box now tentatively ticked.

If it can get airborne, Ingenuity will pave the way for more advanced Mars helicopters that NASA can use to explore the Martian surface for research sites and also to collect data for mapping routes for future Mars rovers.

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Trevor Mogg
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