NASA to fly helicopter on the 'red planet': 2020 mission

Enlarge Image This illustration shows what the Mars Helicopter might look like as it readies for takeoff.                  NASA

Enlarge Image This illustration shows what the Mars Helicopter might look like as it readies for takeoff. NASA

The Mars 2020 rover is being prepared for launch in July 2020, with its landing on the Red Planet planned for February 2021.

Both Bridenstine and Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, highlighted the fact that, if successful, Mars Helicopter will be the first heavier-than-air vehicle to fly on another world.

What started as a technology development project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in August 2013, has become The Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft which will travel with the agency's Mars 2020 rover mission, now scheduled to launch in July 2020 and be the first heavier-than-air craft on another world.

Despite its small stature, the Mars Helicopter will be well-equipped to fly around Mars: solar cells for charging its lithium-ion batteries, a heater to keep it from freezing during Martian nights, and rotating blades capable of spinning at 3,000 rpm, which is 10 times the rate of a normal sized Earth helicopter. Those commands will take several minutes to reach the helicopter from Earth, so it will need some autonomous capabilities to make sure it can fly on its own, without anyone controlling it in real time.

The Mars Helicopter is being envisioned as a major advancement for future exploration of the planet, providing a new way of exploring areas of the Mars surface that are not easily accessible by land.

The mission plan calls for the rover to set the drone down on the surface, drive away and relay the commands for up to five autonomous flights, lasting as long as 90 seconds each and ranging up to a few hundred yards (meters) away.

It is specifically created to fly in the atmosphere of Mars, which is 100 times thinner than Earth's.

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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.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said the demonstration could blaze a trail for future robotic scouts on Mars.

The potential addition of Mars Helicopter, though, has not necessarily been warmly accepted by the main Mars 2020 mission. If it does not work, the Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve".

"I am not an advocate for the helicopter, and I don't believe the Mars 2020 project has been an advocate for the helicopter", he said at the meeting.

For months, mission planners and scientists have been debating whether it'd be worth flying the 4-pound rotorcraft for a 30-day test campaign.

He added, though, that Mars 2020 has worked to accommodate the helicopter, and was not concerned about any technical risk to the mission from it. The rover also will cache rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth. "All the decisions that are being made have to honor that".

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