In a statement released on Friday, NASA announced it will be sending a helicopter to Mars during its 2020 rover mission. The mission is scheduled to launch in July 2020 to study the implications of using "heavier-than-air vehicles" on the Red Planet.
“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”
The Mars Helicopter
Named simply the Mars Helicopter, this miniature unmanned aircraft that resembles a drone began its development in August 2013 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The chopper took four years of design to complete.
The helicopter was particularly conceived for use on Mars featuring solar cells to charge its batteries, a heating mechanism for cold Martian nights and counter-rotating blades that function at 3,000 rpm, 10 times faster than helicopters on Earth. The chopper is also light, weighing a little under four pounds (1.8 kilograms).
“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up,” explained Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. “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.”
A first in history
To get to the Red Planet from earth, this special chopper will be attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover. Once there, the chopper needs to find a suitable location, charge its batteries, complete all necessary tests and then, if all goes well, the aircraft will perform its first autonomous flight in history.
“We don’t have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time,” said Aung. “Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.”
If the mission proves successful, helicopters will be used in future missions to planets to access locations not reachable by ground travel. “Exploring the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington.
“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," Zurbuchen added. Up up and away, we say!