In an interplanetary first, Nasa plans to fly a helicopter on Mars

In an interplanetary first, Nasa plans to fly a helicopter on Mars

This small helicopter weighing 1.8 kilograms would be remote-controlled.

A robot helicopter will fly the skies of Mars as part of the 2020 mission, NASA has announced, hoping to replicate the success of the Wright brothers on the red planet. 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 holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars".

NASA said the blades of the small helicopter, which has a softball-sized fuselage, would maintain an RPM of almost 3,000, about 10 times that of helicopters on Earth. These are powered by lithium-ion batteries charged by solar cells that also help to run heaters to protect the electronics from freezing in the subzero Martian nights.

Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, says that the altitude record for helicopter flight on Earth is around 40,000 feet.

Helicopter's small weight will give it an added bonus and help the light aircraft navigate the thin Martian atmosphere, notes Aung. It will be attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover and placed on the surface upon finding a suitable site after the rover's February 2021 landing.

Sometime after landing on Mars, the rover will place the helicopter on the ground and drive a safe distance away. This is meant to demonstrate the viability and usefulness of such aircraft on Mars.

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The helicopter's first flight will see it climb 10 feet (3 meters) into the Martian air, where it will attempt to hover for 30 seconds.

Mars 2020 is scheduled to launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July 2020.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", he said. If it does not work, the Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted. "We are working very hard for efficiencies and spending 30 days working on a technology demonstration that does not further those goals directly, from the science point of view, is a tradeoff that has to be made".

According to Bridenstine, the success of the "marscopter" may enable more ambitious missions in the future.

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 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.

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