Nasa helicopter survives first freezing -90C night on Mars

Rob Waugh
·3-min read
The helicopter hopes to become the first vehicle to make a powered flight on another planet (NASA)
The helicopter hopes to become the first vehicle to make a powered flight on another planet. (Nasa)

A battery-powered Nasa helicopter which hopes to become the first vehicle to make a powered flight on another planet has survived its first test - a freezing night on Mars

The four-pound Ingenuity helicopter was deployed on the surface by Nasa’s Perseverance rover, having previously been attached to the rover’s belly. 

Evening temperatures at Jezero Crater can plunge to minus 90C.

This can freeze and crack unprotected electrical components and damage the onboard batteries required for flight.

Ingenuity will be the first aircraft to attempt powered, controlled flight on another planet.

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MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said: "This is the first time that Ingenuity has been on its own on the surface of Mars.

"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 Perseverance rover was instructed to move away from Ingenuity shortly after deploying it - so that the solar array atop the helicopter’s rotors could begin getting sunlight as soon as possible.

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Until the helicopter put its four legs onto the Martian surface, Ingenuity remained attached to the belly of the rover, receiving power from Perseverance.

The rover serves as a communications relay between Ingenuity and Earth, and it will use its suite of cameras to observe the flight characteristics of the solar-powered helicopter from Van Zyl Overlook.

The helicopter carries no science instruments; its only mission a technology demonstration, is to conduct flight tests in the thin atmosphere of Mars.

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Within 30 Martian days, or sols (a Martian day is 24.6 hours), on the surface, Ingenuity will complete its testing, and Perseverance’s scientific exploration of Jezero Crater will kick into high gear.

"Our 30-sol test schedule is frontloaded with exciting milestones," said Teddy Tzanetos, deputy operations lead for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL. 

"Whatever the future holds, we will acquire all the flight data we can within that timeframe."

MARS - FEBRUARY 20:  In this handout provided by NASA, the Navigation Cameras, or Navcams, aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover captured this view of the rover’s deck on February 20, 2021 on the planet Mars. The Perseverance Mars rover landed on Mars Thursday, February 18, 2021. A key objective for Perseverance's mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet's geology and past climate, paving the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith. (Photo by NASA via Getty Images)
The Navigation Cameras, or Navcams, aboard Nasa’s Perseverance Mars rover captured this view of the rover’s deck on 20 February. (Nasa via Getty Images)

On April 4, Perseverance downlinked the first of the images of the helicopter on the surface of Mars. 

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Taken by the rover’s rear left Hazard Avoidance camera, the image shows the helicopter’s rotor blades still stacked in alignment on top of each other (a configuration used to save room during the trip to Mars) and its four footpads firmly planted into the surface of Mars.

For the next two days, Ingenuity will collect information about how well the thermal-control and power systems perform now that the small helicopter is standing on its own in the Mars environment. 

That information will be used to fine tune Ingenuity’s thermal-control system to help it survive the harsh Mars nights through the entire flight experiment period.

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