Published: Sat, May 12, 2018
Science | By Clint Wade

NASA is sending its first autonomous helicopter to Mars in 2020

NASA is sending its first autonomous helicopter to Mars in 2020

The Mars helicopter will not be manned, but it will operate autonomously, in a way similar to a flying drone here on Earth.

NASA is planning for the first time to use a small helicopter to survey Mars as part of the agency's 2020 mission to put a new rover on the red planet's surface. "Exploring the Red Planet with NASA's Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future", said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington.

NASA's next Mars mission will have a helicopter onboard.

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in California, have been working on the Mars helicopter since 2013, but its late addition to the 2020 Mars rover mission came as a surprise.

Mars Helicopter weighs about 1.8 kilograms and has a cubical fuselage similar in size to a softball.

Because the atmosphere on Mars is 100 times thinner than Earth's, the blades will spin at 3,000 revolutions per minute, which is about 10 times faster than the speed of helicopter blades on Earth.

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The helicopter consists of solarcells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and also a heating mechanism to keep it warm throughout frigid evenings.

Jim Bridenstine in a statement conveyed, "The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling".

NASA stated it intends that the 30day flight test interval which could include as many as five flights, so starting with a brief vertical jaunt to hover for around 30 seconds at a elevation of 10 feet (3 meters) and progressing to flight distances upto a couple hundred yards and durations up to 90 seconds.

According to the source, the Mars Helicopter will be bundled with the U.S. space agency's Mars rover when it launches in 2020. That could be useful, for example, for later missions to help spot samples cached by Mars 2020 in order to collect them for return to Earth. "We have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own", Aung said. This is meant to demonstrate the viability and usefulness of such aircraft on Mars. That would fill in some gaps between the rover's close-to-the-ground camera perspective and the long-distance view we get from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It's expected to reach the planet on February 2021.

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.

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