NASA has announced that a small, autonomous helicopter will be launched with the agency’s upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. The craft is meant to demonstrate the viability of travel with a heavier-than-air craft above the Martian surface. Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said, “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.”
Mars 2020 is slated to launch on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket during that July. The mission will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It should arrive at Mars in February 2021. Upon landing, the rover will conduct geological assessments, determine the habitability of the environment, and search for signs of ancient Martian life, along with other tasks. The helicopter will ride to Mars attached to the rover’s belly pan.
The Mars Helicopter is the result of four years of design, testing, and redesign at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. Its body is about the size of a softball and it weighs just under 4 lbs. The helicopter will be powered by solar cells that charge in the light of the sun and contain a heating mechanism to mitigate the cold nights of the Red Planet. The helicopter’s twin blades will whirl at 3,000 rpm, about 10 times the rate of a helicopter’s blades on Earth, to compensate for Mars’ thin atmosphere.
Once the rover reaches the planet’s surface, it will place the helicopter on the ground and move to a safe distance to relay commands. After its batteries are charged and tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight. The helicopter will attempt up to five flights, going farther and longer each time. On the first test flight, NASA intends to have the helicopter ascend 10 feet into the air and hover for 30 seconds.
NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said, “The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery and exploration missions to Mars.” If the helicopter succeeds, the agency will have a powerful new tool to survey the planet. U.S. Rep. John Culberson of Texas voiced his approval of the plan, saying, “This exciting and visionary achievement will inspire young people all over the United States to become scientists and engineers, paving the way for even greater discoveries in the future.”