Nasa's Ingenuity survives first night on Mars' frigid surface

WASHINGTON • Nasa's Ingenuity mini-helicopter has survived its first night alone on the frigid surface of Mars, the US space agency said, hailing it as "a major milestone" for the tiny craft as it prepares for its first flight.

The ultra-light aircraft was dropped on the surface of Mars last Saturday after detaching from the belly of the Perseverance rover, which touched down on the Red Planet on Feb 18.

Detached from the Perseverance, Ingenuity now has 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 plunge to as low as minus 130 deg F (minus 90 deg C).

Making it through the frigid Martian night was "a major milestone for the small rotorcraft", the US space agency said in a statement on Monday.

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

"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 engineer added.

Over the coming days, Ingenuity will undergo tests of its rotor blades and motors.

If all goes well, Ingenuity is expected to make its first flight attempt no earlier than Sunday evening, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.

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

Ingenuity will be attempting to fly in an atmosphere that is 1 per cent the density of Earth's, which makes achieving lift harder - but will be assisted by gravity that is one-third of our planet's.

The first flight will involve climbing at a rate of about one metre per second to a height of three metres, hovering there for 30 seconds, then descending back to the surface.

Ingenuity will also be taking high-resolution photography as it flies from its "airfield" in the Jezero Crater.

A series of flights are planned over its mission lasting 30 Martian sols (31 Earth days).

The 1.8kg rotorcraft cost Nasa around US$85 million (S$114.3 million) to develop and is considered a proof of concept that could revolutionise space exploration.

Future aircraft could cover ground much quicker than rovers, and explore more rugged terrain.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2021, with the headline 'Nasa's Ingenuity survives first night on Mars' frigid surface'. Subscribe