The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced that it will send an autonomous helicopter to Mars.
Here are the details:
1. The Mars Helicopter is a small, autonomous rotorcraft that will travel with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.
2. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said this is the first time in history that a helicopter will be sent to Mars. “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,” Bridenstine said.
3. The development of the Mars Helicopter started in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
4. After four years of designing and testing, the team was finally successful in keeping the weight of the Mars Helicopter at little under four pounds (1.8 kilograms).
5. Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rpm – about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.
6. The helicopter also contains built-in capabilities needed for operation at Mars, including solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights. But before the helicopter can fly at Mars it has to get there. It will do so attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.
7. Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, Mimi Aung said: “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.”
8. 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. The rover then will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands.
9. After its batteries are charged and a myriad of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight into history.
10. The full 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally farther flight distances, up to a few hundred meters, and longer durations as long as 90 seconds, over a period.
11. On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds.
12. 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, and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Sreya is based in Kolkata. She is a Senior Editor of Big Wire.