NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter survives first night alone on Mars

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Washington (AFP)

NASA’s Ingenuity mini helicopter has survived its first night alone on the icy surface of Mars, said the US space agency, hailing it as “a major milestone” for the small spacecraft as it prepares for its maiden flight.

The microlight aircraft was launched to the surface on Saturday after taking off from the belly of the Perseverance rover, which landed on the Red Planet on February 18.

Separated from perseverance, Ingenuity had to rely on its own solar-powered battery to run a vital heater to protect its unshielded electrical components from freezing and cracking during the bitter Martian night, where temperatures can drop to minus 130 degrees. Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius).

Getting through the frigid Martian night was “an important milestone for the little helicopter,” NASA said in a statement Monday.

“This is the first time that Ingenuity has been alone on the surface of Mars,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“But now we have confirmation that we have the proper insulation, the proper heaters, and enough battery power to survive the cold night, which is a huge victory for the team. We are excited to continue preparing Ingenuity for its first test of flight.”

Over the next few days, Ingenuity will undergo testing of its rotor blades and motors.

If all goes well, Ingenuity is expected to make its first flight attempt no earlier than the night of April 11, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.

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

– Tribute to the Wright brothers –

The device wears a small piece of cloth that covered one of the wings of the first Wright brothers’ plane to achieve the first powered flight on Earth at Kitty Hawk in 1903, to pay tribute to the milestone.

His attempt will also coincide with the 60th anniversary of the first human space flight, performed by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, and the 40th anniversary of the April 12, 1981 launch of the first space shuttle, Columbia.

The device will try to fly in an atmosphere that is one percent the density of Earth, which makes achieving elevation more difficult, but will be assisted by gravity that is one-third that of our planet.

The first flight will involve climbing at a speed of about three feet (one meter) per second to a height of 10 feet (three meters), staying there for 30 seconds, and then descending back to the surface.

The device will take high-resolution photographs as it flies from its “airfield” in Jezero crater.

A series of flights is planned during its mission that will last 30 Martian suns (31 Earth days).

“Our 30-sun testing program is ahead of schedule with exciting milestones,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s deputy director of operations.

“Regardless of what the future holds, we will acquire as much flight data as we can within that time frame.”

The development of the four-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter cost NASA about $ 85 million and is seen as a proof of concept that could revolutionize space exploration.

The aircraft of the future could cover terrain much faster than rovers and explore rougher terrain.

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