NASA's next Mars rover mission to carry tiny helicopter


A small, autonomous helicopter could soon soar above the rusty rocks of Mars. "The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery and exploration missions to Mars". The still-unnamed Mars helicopter will be the first heavier-than-air craft to fly on another planet.

The project started in August 2013 as a technology development at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It took four years of testing and tweaking to make the first prototype of the Mars-bound helicopter.

The Mars Helicopter is an autonomous drone which weighs just below four pounds, with twin counter-rotating blades that will hit the thin atmosphere on Mars at about 3,000 rpm, which is about ten times the rate of a helicopter flying on Earth. It will get to Mars by attaching to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.

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. "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 powerful as it can possibly be".

Once the rover is on the planet's surface, a suitable location will be found to deploy the helicopter down from the vehicle and place it onto the ground.

Because of its enormous distance - Earth will be several minutes away, traveling at the speed of light - Aung said that direct control will be impossible.

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NASA hopes that the helicopter will fly around 10 feet high and then stay hovering stable for 30 seconds for its firs test flight. On its first flight, the vehicle will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters) and remain there for 30 seconds before landing.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Engineers have been trying to ideal the weight and shape of the helicopter for it to be able to fly in the thin air of Mars. The space agency plans to do it as part of its next Mars mission. The new Mars Helicopter will serve as a low-flying scout and could pave a way for similar missions that might provide access to hard-to-reach regions on Martian surface.

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

ESA is developing a mechanism of getting capsules to the surface of Mars on its orbit.

The craft will launch onboard the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July 2020 and is expected to arrive on Mars in February 2021. The six-wheeled rover will hunt for signs of habitable environments as well as sites that may have once hosted microbial life, examining the Red Planet with 23 cameras, a microphone and a drill to collect samples. If the program works as NASA expects, the agency would have a whole new way to explore the Martian surface.