Published: Sat, May 12, 2018
Science | By Joan Schultz

In an interplanetary first, NASA to fly a helicopter on Mars

In an interplanetary first, NASA to fly a helicopter on Mars

NASA's Mars Helicopter, a small autonomous rotorcraft, will explore Mars with the 2020 rover as a technology demonstration for heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.

It took four years of design, testing and redesign to get it to under four pounds (1.8 kilograms).

Because the atmosphere on Mars is 100 times thinner than Earth's, the blades will spin at 3,000 revolutions per minute, which is about 10 times faster than the speed of helicopter blades on Earth.

"The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet [12,000 meters]", MiMi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, said in the statement. "To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be".

It will also feature numerous built-in capabilities such as solar cells for charging the batteries and a heater.

In a mission scheduled for the summer of 2020, NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars, the organization announced Friday.

The Mars Helicopter will be bundled with the USA space agency's Mars rover when it launches 2020.

After the rover lands on the red planet in 2021 after its launch in 2020, NASA scientists will use the spacecraft's cameras to scan the Martian terrain and find a suitable, flat place to set the tiny helicopter down. The rover will then drive a safe distance from the helicopter before flight tests begin.

In a statement issued late May 11, the space agency said it will include the Mars Helicopter on the Mars 2020 rover mission, where it will perform a series of test flights over the course of a month.

The helicopter has been in development since 2013, and has been considered as a potential candidate to launch to Mars, but it's finally received official confirmation that it will ride in the "belly panel" of Mars 2020 until the rover touches down.

"After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world", he said.

The helicopter will attempt up to five flights, going farther and operating for longer each time - up to a few hundred meters and 90 seconds, officials said. "That will happen very early in the mission because the capabilities of the helicopter do not allow it to be maintained on the rover for an extended period", project scientist Ken Farley, with the California Institute of Technology, told the National Academy of Sciences' Space Studies Board May 3.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", said Zurbuchen.

BBC notes that existing vehicles on Mars have been wheeled ones bound on the planet's surface, which is prone to running into obstacles. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve".

"I am not an advocate for the helicopter and I don't believe the Mars 2020 project has been an advocate for the helicopter", he added.

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