"NASA has a proud history of firsts", said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. If the helicopter tips over during landing or falls out of the sky, it won't be possible to fix it from millions of miles away. It took four years of testing and tweaking to make the first prototype of the Mars-bound helicopter.
The craft weighs less than 4 pounds, has a fuselage about the size of a softball and twin, counter-rotating blades that will spin at nearly 3,000 rpm - a necessity in the thin Martian atmosphere.
The craft will be autonomous but will have a wireless connection to the Mars 2020 rover to exchange data.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's Associate Administrator for science, said that the ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers, and the views from a helicopter flying across Mars will also provide NASA with a stellar public relations tool as it seeks worldwide support for sending humans to the planet in the 2030s or later. 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. These included incorporating the weak atmosphere of Mars as a factor in how the tiny copter would fly.
That said, it is also worth noting that NASA has said if the flight demonstration is not successful, there won't be any effect on how the next Mars rover goes about its job. In contrast, helicopters on Earth typically operate at around 300 rpm. "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", said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL.
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. NASA will relay general commands to the rover, which communicates with the helicopter.
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Dubbed the Mars Helicopter, the rotorcraft is hitching a ride to the Red Planet as part of NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission.
"We don't have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time", Aung stated while stressing on the importance of autonomy for the demonstration. Instead, the craft will have "an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own".
The current plan is for the Mars helicopter to perform five flights over a period of around 30 days, with each successive flight increasing the distance up to an eventual length of 90 seconds and several hundred meters. It will also climb to 10 feet (3 m) and hover for about 30 seconds.
Aerospace Agency of the USA (NASA) and European space Agency (ESA) are working on an ambitious project to deliver to Earth soil and rocks from Mars. If it does not work, the Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted.
"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers".
Mars 2020 is slated to launch in July of that year on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and the mission should arrive at Mars in February 2021. We've sent orbiters, landers, and even 4×4 labs on wheels to the Red Planet. If the program works as NASA expects, the agency would have a whole new way to explore the Martian surface.