NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has cleared its original obstacle before the first ever attempt to drive and controlled the flight of an airplane on another planet.
On Monday, the agency reported that the helicopter had survived its first chilly night outside of Mars Rover endurance on top of the rocky surface of the red planet.
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In the Jezero Crater, where endurance landed almost two months ago, evening temperatures can drop as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
At this temperature, unprotected electrical components could have frozen or cracked, and solar-powered batteries required for the scheduled test flights could have been damaged in the process.
NASA announced last week that the first of its maximum five historic flights – within a time limit of 30 March days – will be tested by the four-pound helicopter no earlier than 11 April.
While Ingenuity originally received its charge from Perseverance, the autonomous rotor craft will now rely on the sun to ignite.
Unlike perseverance, ingenuity carries no scientific instruments.
Endurance, which has multiple cameras and microphones for imaging and recording audio and video, will observe Ingenuity’s flight characteristics from “Van Zyl Overlook” – named after longtime NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) mentor and colleague Jakob van Zyl, who died unexpectedly in August 2020.
Until then, Ingenuity will collect data regarding the performance of its thermal control and electrical systems to ensure that the vehicle is able to survive each night during the flight experiment period.
On Wednesday, restrictions that have secured the rotor blades will be released, and the following days will involve more testing of the blades and the helicopter’s engine.
In addition, the JPL team will need to monitor Ingenuity’s built-in computers, solar power and six lithium-ion batteries and its inertia measuring device: an electronic device that measures body orientation and angular velocity.
Then the helicopter will be ready to take off in its 33-to-33-foot “airfield”.
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“This is the first time that Ingenuity has been alone on the surface of Mars,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL, said in Monday’s release. “But we have now confirmed that we have the right insulation, the right heaters and enough energy in the battery to survive the cold night, which is a big win for the team.”
“We are excited to continue preparing Ingenuity for its first flight test,” she said.