NASA wants to send a helicopter to Mars

Cristina Cross
May 14, 2018

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.

When the rover arrives at Mars in February 2021, it'll perform scouting missions to look for ideal landing zones on the surface, as well as scan the planet for signs of life, hazards that might matter to the future astronauts who finally venture to Mars.

When the helicopter is on the ground, it will be at an Earth-equivalent altitude of 100,000 feet, which is harder on the helicopter. The Mars helicopter is now set to be attached to the belly of the 2020 Mars rover - adding extra capabilities to the successor of the massively successful Curiosity rover. Mars' atmosphere is also a lot thinner in comparison (1%) to our own and thus, the blades of the helicopter will rotate at 10 times the speed at which they would on Earth at 3000 rpm which will allow it to fly there.

The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. For power, the vehicle packs two counter-rotating blades that will whirl 3,000 times a minute - 10 times the rate of a standard Earth-based helicopter - and enable a seamless flight.

"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", she said.

The helicopter, which will be attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover, has built-in solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights.

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

NASA says it hopes to fly the aircraft incrementally father and longer in the four subsequent test flights, with distances up to a few hundred meters and durations as long as 90 seconds. For starters the 'copter will climb to 3 meters, hover for 30 seconds, then descend. The agency said in their statement if the technology demonstration doesn't work, the Mars 2020 mission won't be impacted - but if it does, "helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground level". Furthermore, to show that travel by an aircraft which is heavier than air is feasible on the red planet, the aircraft will undergo a 30-day trial run on reaching there.

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

Even with no human pilot, the helicopter drone will be largely autonomous with little input from scientists on Earth but could plot a path ahead of a ground-based rover like Curiosity to make sure the terrain is safe. "We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit".

But if this endeavor truly takes off (sorry) it could add a valuable and revealing new dimension to space exploration missions down the road.

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