NASA’s new space helicopter has survived its first night alone on Mars.
After slowly unfolding from its hideaway in the rover Perseverance’s belly, the 4-pound robot called Ingenuity dropped the last four inches to the ground on Saturday. By weathering freezing temperatures, Ingenuity has overcome one of the biggest hurdles in NASA’s quest to fly the first drone on another planet.
Ingenuity is set to conduct its first Martian flight as early as Sunday. If that goes well, the space drone will have a roughly 30-day window to attempt up to five increasingly difficult flights, venturing higher and further each time.
NASA’s Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity to Mars, will perch nearby and record video. That footage will help NASA collect crucial data about this technological demonstration, and it could pioneer a new method of exploring other planets.
Having been deployed, Ingenuity is now in position for those flights.
After depositing the helicopter on the ground, the rover backed away, exposing Ingenuity’s solar panels so they could soak up sunlight. This also exposed the rotorcraft to frigid Martian nights. In Jezero Crater, the ancient lake basin where Perseverance landed, nighttime temperatures can plunge as low as negative-130 degrees Fahrenheit.
“This is the first time that Ingenuity has been on its own on the surface of Mars,” MiMi Aung, NASA’s project manager for the helicopter, said in a press release. “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’s otherworldly flight could be the first of many
NASA spent $85 million developing Ingenuity. The rotorcraft has already proved tough enough to survive the nearly 300-million-mile journey to Mars and weather the planet’s extreme temperatures. But it also has to fly.
Mars has an incredibly thin atmosphere; it’s just 1% of the density of Earth’s. To catch enough air, the helicopter’s four carbon-fiber blades have to spin in opposite directions at about 2,400 revolutions per minute – about eight times as fast as a passenger helicopter on Earth.
Ingenuity’s first flight will just test whether the helicopter can successfully get a few feet off the ground, hover for about 30 seconds, and then touch back down. From there, each test will get more difficult, culminating in a final flight that could carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian ground.
Ingenuity won’t conduct any further science on Mars – it’s meant as a technology demonstration – but future space helicopters could open new scientific frontiers on other planets.
“We use drones and helicopters here on Earth for all sorts of things that they’re more suitable for than land-based vehicles,” Håvard Grip, NASA’s chief pilot for Ingenuity, said in a March press briefing.
On other planets, the thinking goes, similar aerial explorers could accomplish tasks that rovers can’t.
“That could be for reconnaissance purposes – taking pictures to scout out areas, potential science targets for future rovers, or even future astronauts on Mars,” Grip said. “Or it could be carrying its own science instruments into areas where you can’t get with a land-based vehicle.”
Once Ingenuity’s test flights are over, Perseverance is expected to drive toward the cliffs of an ancient river delta for its own revolutionary science mission: a search for fossils of ancient alien microbes on Mars.
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