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Fly the (red) skies: Helicopter to fly on NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission

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The Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In over five decades of robotic exploration, NASA has sent  orbiters, landers, rovers and even Cubesats to Mars. The space agency announced on Friday, May 11, 2018 that their next robotic mission to the Red Planet will carry a helicopter. The Mars Helicopter, a small autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, scheduled to launch in July 2020, in a effort to demonstrate the viability of heavier-than-air vehicles on Mars. 

“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said NASA’s new Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “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 began as a technology development program of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in August of 2013.  Following four years of design, testing and re-design, the resulting rotorcraft weighs just under four pounds (1.8 kilograms) and is about the size of a softball. In order to create lift in the thin Martian atmosphere, the Mars Helicopter’s twin, counter-rotating blades will spin at nearly 3,000 rpm, nearly 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.

“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 via an agency-issued release. “After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world.”

The helicopter is designed to carry within it everything needed to operate on Mars. This includes solar panels to charge its lithium-ion-batteries, and  a heater to keep it warm on cold Martian nights. The helicopter will travel to Mars attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.

“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up,” said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. “To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.”

Once the rover is on the Martian surface, the mission team plan to find a suitable location to deploy the helicopter  and place it on the surface. The rover will then drive a safe distance away from the helicopter. After the helicopter’s batteries are charged and pre-flight testing is completed, the mission team will command the helicopter to begin its first autonomous flight.

“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,” said Aung. “Instead, 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.”

The planned 30-day flight test campaign should include up to five flights of incrementally increasing duration and distances up to a 90 second flight of up to a few hundred meters. The helicopter will make a vertical climb of up to 10 feet (3 meters) on its first flight, where it will hover for 30 seconds.

The Mars Helicopter is a technology demonstration, and its success or failure will not impact the Mars 2020 mission. If it does succeed, helicopters may be included on future mission to act as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations out of the reach of ground-based rover missions.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” Zurbuchen said. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

Video courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise.

While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004.

Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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