Yes, NASA is officially sending a helicopter to Mars. And it will fly on their next red planet rover mission.
NASA will attach a small, autonomous helicopter in the agency’s upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission, officials announced yesterday (May 11).
This is the first time we are sending a helicopter to fly the skies of another planet.
“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said in a statement. “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 space agency currently scheduled the helicopter to launch in July 2020.
“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.”
Mars Helicopter’s Design
The Mars Helicopter’s development began in 2013 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. Since then, the design team has put a lot of effort. They had to shrink the helicopter to “the size of a softball” and cutting its weight to 1.8kg (4lbs). Also, they specifically designed it to fly in the atmosphere of Mars, which is 100 times thinner than Earth’s.
The helicopter’s two blades will spin at close to 3,000 revolutions a minute, which Nasa says is about 10 times faster than a standard helicopter on Earth.
“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet [12,000 meters],” MiMi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, said in the statement. “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 [30,000 m] up.
“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 added.
It will carry solar cells to charge up in the light of the sun and a heating mechanism to endure cold nights on the Red Planet.
Once the rover is on the planet’s surface, NASA will find a suitable location. Thus, deploying the helicopter down from the vehicle and place it on the ground. Shortly after, the rover will leave the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will transmit commands.
First, the helicopter will charge its batteries and perform a myriad of tests. Then, controllers on Earth will command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight into history.
Scientists are calling the tiny craft a helicopter instead of a drone. However, there will be no pilot.
It will be flying almost 55 million km (34 million miles) from Earth, too far away to send a remote control signal.
“Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time,” said Mimi Aung, the project manager at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The flying probe will demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.
The rover will conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers. Scientists will use the instruments aboard the rover to identify and collect samples of rock and soil, encase them in sealed tubes, and leave them on the planet’s surface for potential return to Earth on a future Mars mission.
Mars 2020 will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. NASA expects to reach Mars in February 2021.
Thumbnail image credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory