When NASA launches its next rover to Mars, the vehicle will have a small helicopter along for the ride. NASA announced today that it will be sending a small autonomous flying chopper — aptly named the Mars Helicopter — with the upcoming Mars 2020 rover. The helicopter will attempt to fly through the Martian air to see if vehicles can even levitate on Mars, where the atmosphere is 100 times thinner than that of Earth.
The design for the Mars Helicopter has been in the works for the last four years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but the space agency had yet to decide if it was actually going to send the vehicle to Mars. NASA needed to determine if this technology was actually feasible and if the agency had enough money in its budget to include the copter, according to Spaceflight Now. Now it seems that the agency has decided that this copter idea could actually work.
But even if the helicopter fails to fly, it won’t affect the overall mission of the Mars 2020 rover — the successor to NASA’s Curiosity rover which is already on the Red Planet’s surface. But if the Mars Helicopter does indeed fly, it’ll be able to capture a rare bird’s-eye-view of Mars with its two cameras, something that’s never been done before. And that may mean it’s possible to send future flying vehicles to Mars to scout out locations that are hard to access.
Engineers at JPL have been working to get the weight and shape of the helicopter just right, so that it can fly through the thin Mars air. The highest any helicopter has flown on Earth is 40,000 feet high. But the Mars Helicopter will be flying in an atmosphere that’s as thin as altitudes of 100,000 feet on Earth, according to NASA. So the robot has to be tiny and light: it weighs in at just four pounds (1.8 kilograms) on Earth and is about the size of a softball. The copter also sports twin blades that rotate 10 times faster than helicopter’s here on our planet.
The plan is for the Mars Helicopter to fly attached to the underside of the Mars 2020 rover. Once the rover lands on the planet’s surface, it will then find a good place to set down the copter, deploy it, and then roll away. Eventually, the helicopter will try to take off, and it’ll have to do the flight completely on its own, too. Since Earth is so far away from Mars, it will take several minutes to send the helicopter commands. Ultimately, the vehicle will try to do five autonomous flights over a 30-day period; the trips could last up to 90 seconds.
“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement on Friday afternoon, in the middle of SpaceX’s Block 5 launch. “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 2020 rover is slated to launch on top of an Atlas V rocket, made by the United Launch Alliance, from Cape Canaveral, Florida in July 2020. The spacecraft will then land on Mars in February of 2021.