NASA's next Mars rover mission to carry tiny helicopter


The helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward endeavor.

The launch of the Mars helicopter will help make up for sme of the drawbacks of heavier-than-air vehicles as we take steps to further explore the Red Planet.

While Russian missions to Venus dropped balloons into its atmosphere, this helicopter will be both the first powered flying machine and the first human-designed heavier-than-air vehicle to visit another planet.

In an official statement posted to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration website, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, "NASA has a proud history of firsts". 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. The agency has been working on a helicopter drone for use on Mars, and it now plans to include this vehicle with the 2020 rover.

Weighing in at just 1.8kg, the Mars Helicopter has a fuselage roughly the size of a softball, as well as solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights. The technology demonstration has been many years in the making; it started in 2013 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

In order to take off, the tiny flying robot needs to spin it's two blades ten times faster - 3,000 times per minute - than it would on Earth while carrying batteries and other hardware crafted to be as light as possible. "We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit".

However, reality is not that simple as unlike Earth's atmosphere, the Martian atmosphere is 100 times thinner which poses enormous challenges for a helicopter. It will do so attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.

Once the Mars rover makes it to a site that it suitable for takeoff, the Mars helicopter will detach and scientists at NASA will be able to send out commands that will allow the chopper to perform initial tests before taking to the skies. If this little helicopter works as intended, it will set the stage for future, more complex rotorcrafts created to act as scouts that can explore and map regions of Mars where scientists can't even dream to send a rover.

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 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 upcoming Mars helicopter launch.

For example: the Red Planet's particularly-weak atmosphere and the communication delay between ground control here on Earth and the rover. On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 3 metres where it will hover for about 30 seconds. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve".