Tiny Mars helicopter could make first aircraft launch from another planet

Greg Lawrence
May 12, 2018

It is planned that NASA would send another expedition to Mars in July 2020 - red planet the ship will reach in February 2021.

The helicopter is the result of four years of testing and redesigning a standard helicopter to shrink it down to an object that weighs a little less than four pounds. The altitude record for a helicopter flying on Earth is about 40,000 feet and the atmosphere of Mars is only one percent of ours so even on the ground it will be equivalent to 100,000 feet up, said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. The helicopter contains solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it warm during frigid nights. The rover will then drive a safe distance from the helicopter before flight tests begin.

The Mars helicopter will not be manned, but it will operate autonomously, in a way similar to a flying drone here on Earth. But in today's announcement, Bridenstine said the helicopter would build on NASA's "proud history of firsts". The Mars Helicopter and the Mars 2020 rover will be carried into space by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V, scheduled to take off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But before the helicopter can fly at Mars it has to get there.

The helicopter will attempt up to five flights, going farther and operating for longer each time - up to a few hundred meters and 90 seconds, officials said.

The helicopter's twin blades will whirl at about 10 times the rate of a helicopter's blades on Earth - at 3,000 rpm - to stay aloft in Mars' thin atmosphere.

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The helicopter will have a relatively short mission, about 30 days in total.

What will the Mars Helicopter do? At a meeting of the National Academies' Space Studies Board May 3, Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020, said he and others on the mission had concerns about flying that technology demonstration. "If it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel".

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington.

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

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