NASA’s mini Ingenuity helicopter survived its first night all alone on the surface of Mars after being dropped by Perseverance on Saturday. The newly deployed helicopter, resistant to frigid Martian temperatures, passed a major test of independence, giving engineers the confidence to proceed with a series of warm-up drills in preparation for its maiden flight this weekend.
“That was one of the tremendous, tremendous accomplishments we were looking forward to, and now we can move on to the rest of the mission,” Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s deputy chief of operations, said on a NASA livestream Monday. ‘And now we are on our own. We are a separate spacecraft on Mars on our own energy. “
The four-pound solar-powered craft arrived on Mars on Feb. 18 attached to the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover. The rover dropped Ingenuity’s protective cover last month to begin a painstaking week-long deployment process that concluded last weekend, with Ingenuity’s four landing legs planted firmly on the surface of Mars for the first time. Shortly afterwards, Ingenuity’s 13-megapixel camera took its first shot of the ground.
Perseverance retreated and kicked the helicopter’s 31-day clock to conduct five flight tests and become the first craft to take a powered flight on another world. The maiden flight is currently scheduled for Sunday, April 11, with confirmation whether the attempt was successful to arrive via the Mars-to-Earth data pipeline the following day.
Ingenuity engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory confirmed that Ingenuity survived frigid nighttime temperatures of about -130 degrees Fahrenheit on Mars Monday morning after the helicopter sent signals back to the Mars base station, a communications center aboard Perseverance.
For the first test flight this weekend, Ingenuity will rise nearly 3 meters above the surface and hang in place for about 30 seconds. It will spin as it floats to demonstrate a smooth motion and then begin a gradual descent for a landing. Engineers expect to receive images of Ingenuity’s gliding flight on the morning of April 12, along with a wealth of data about the flight.
Perseverance beamed back images of Ingenuity shortly after it was dropped off on its ‘helipad,’ a small space on one side of the flight area shaped like a racecourse. Subsequent tests within Ingenuity’s 30-day test window included flying up to 5 meters high and zipping forward within the flight zone. The helicopter will not conduct scientific missions while on Mars; engineers have emphasized that this is just a flight demonstration.
Spanning four feet, Ingenuity’s dual rotor system will spin in opposite rotations as fast as 2,400 rpm to achieve lift in Mars’ ultra-thin atmosphere.
Despite the helicopter’s small and lightweight design, it must be completely power independent now that it is disconnected from Perseverance’s power supply. To do this, the craft has a solar panel above its propellers that powers six lithium-ion batteries in its tissue box-sized body, which also houses a computer about 100 times more powerful than Persistence’s, and small heating elements to keep itself warm. through frigid Martian nights.