Ingenuity robotic helicopter survives its first Martian night
NASA's Ingenuity robotic helicopter has survived its first night on the surface of Mars. After being deployed on Martian soil by the Perseverance rover, the miniature rotorcraft had to keep itself warm through the night for the first time using only its internal power and warming system.
Designing Ingenuity is an example of how engineering is often a matter of balancing different requirements without falling through the gaps between them.
In the case of Ingenuity, NASA needed an autonomous helicopter that was small, very light, and could be folded up and stowed under the belly of Perseverance. Additionally, it had to be able to heat itself enough to survive the Martian nights, where the temperatures can drop as low as -130° F (-90° C), which can freeze electronics and damage batteries. The problem is, it had to be small and weigh only 4 lb (1.8 kg), which meant that the onboard batteries and solar panel might be too small for the job.
During the voyage to Mars and up until the final steps of deployment, Ingenuity was supplied with electricity from the nuclear-powered rover. Once it was unfolded and placed on its four landing legs, the wire to Perseverance was disconnected on April 3rd. Now, its only connection is a radio data relay link with mission control back on Earth.
The first night was a particular milestone because there was no way to do a fully realistic field test of Ingenuity before reaching Mars. It was only when the helicopter kept sending back telemetry as the next day dawned that mission control could be sure that the demonstration wouldn't end before it began.
Having made it through the first night under the power of its six lithium-ion batteries, NASA engineers are evaluating Ingenuity's power and thermal control systems, which will be fine-tuned to help it survive through its 30-Martian day test flight program. The next step will come on April 7th, when the helicopter's rotors will be unlocked, followed by several days of testing the rotors and the motors that power them, the initial measurement unit, and the onboard computers.
If the tests are all positive, Ingenuity could make its first flight on April 11th.
"This is the first time that Ingenuity has been on its own on the surface of Mars," says MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "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."