NASA Is Actually Sending A Helicopter To Mars
NASA will include a small, autonomous helicopter in the agency’s upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission, officials announced today (May 11).
The craft will undergo a 30-day test campaign once it reaches the Red Planet to demonstrate the viability of travel above the Martian surface with a heavier-than-air craft.
“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said in a statement.
“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.”
The Mars Helicopter’s development began in 2013 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. It’s just under 4 lbs. (1.8 kilograms), and its body is about the size of a softball, NASA officials said in the statement.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The helicopter will ride to Mars attached to the rover’s belly pan, officials said.
Once the rover reaches the planet’s surface, it will place the helicopter on the ground and move to a safe distance to relay commands; controllers on Earth will direct it to take its first autonomous flight.
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. It will also climb to 10 feet (3 m) and hover for about 30 seconds.
The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project, according to NASA: If the helicopter fails, it won’t affect the rest of the Mars 2020 rover’s mission, but if it succeeds, the agency will have a powerful new tool to survey the planet and access currently unreachable locations.
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