Published: Tue, May 15, 2018
Science | By Joan Schultz

NASA Will Send The First Helicopter On Mars

NASA Will Send The First Helicopter On Mars

The miniature aircraft will spin its rotors at about ten times the speed of a terrestrial one, due to the extremely low density of Mars' atmosphere - only about one percent of Earth's.

But the agency announced last week that they will be adding another electric vehicle to that mission: a small helicopter. The technology demonstration has been many years in the making; it started in 2013 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Weighing in at just 1.8kg, the Mars Helicopter has a fuselage roughly the size of a softball, as well as solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights.

The craft weighs less than 4 pounds, has a fuselage about the size of a softball and twin, counter-rotating blades that will spin at nearly 3,000 rpm - a necessity in the thin Martian atmosphere. Mars Helicopter will be flying in an atmosphere that's as thin as altitudes of 100,000 feet on Earth, compared to an average helicopter on earth which just flies 40,000 feet high.

Once it's there, the rover will drive to a suitable take-off site, detach the helicopter, and drive away.

The helicopter's first flight should be a short one: It will climb 10 feet and hover for 30 seconds before returning to the ground.

The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project, according to NASA: If the helicopter fails, it won't affect the rest of the Mars 2020 rover's mission, but if it succeeds, the agency will have a powerful new tool to survey the planet and access now unreachable locations.

"If we were to fly the helicopter as a tech demonstration on something like Mars 2020, we would envision a very small number of flights to prove the aerodynamic and handling characteristics, and the concept of operations, and that would be the end of the demonstration", Watzin said.

NASA hopes that the helicopter will fly around 10 feet high and then stay hovering stable for 30 seconds for its firs test flight. "The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery and exploration missions to Mars".

Dubbed the Mars Helicopter, the rotorcraft is hitching a ride to the Red Planet as part of NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission.

But if it is successful, it will be the first step in using helicopters as aerial scouts for rovers.

But before any of that happens, the rover has to be sent to and deployed on the red planet.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", said Zurbuchen. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve".

The Mars 2020 spacecraft is slated to touch down on the Martian surface in February 2021.

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