As much of the world has learned, NASA has made another huge announcement. NASA will be sending up a small helicopter with its rover on the July 2020 launch to Mars. The space agency’s mission is to place the newest generation rover on the Martian surface. This will be the first time this type of aircraft will be used on another planet. The Mars Helicopter Project was funded $23 million in March 2018.
“The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”
The Mars Helicopter Concept
According to Mimi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, “It’s phenomenal because this has never been done before.” According to Aung, the design, development, and testing for the Mars helicopter have taken nearly five years. This testing in an effort to prevent any hazard to the 2020 Rover itself.
“We have built a progression of prototypes, and the most recent one was our engineering development model,” Aung said. “We flew that vehicle in the 25-foot space simulator chamber here at JPL … and we are able to pump that down to vacuum and backfill it with carbon dioxide to a Mars-like atmospheric density, and we flew in that environment.”
“That’s why this wasn’t a feasible thing to build for many decades, until recently with the advancement of commercial off-the-shelf electronics, computers with the advancement of cellular phone technologies, and advancements in high-energy battery systems, efficient solar cells, inertial measurement units, computing elements,” she said. “That’s what enables this thing to be built so light, and we definitely use foam core and carbon fiber everywhere we can, so that we can have the strength as well as have it lightweight.”
What will the Mars Helicopter do?
The aircraft will be attached to the belly pan of the 2020 rover prior to lift-off on the top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral. The travel time will be roughly seven months during which the helicopter will remain in its position on the rover’s belly. Landing approximately in February of 2021, the main purpose of the tiny aircraft will be to provide images ahead of the rover of a possible 10 times greater resolution than orbital images.
NASA has released information indicating the Mars helicopter will undergo a 30-day testing campaign after landing and being released from the car-sized rover. Early on in the mission, ground controllers will send remote commands to deploy the aircraft on its four landing legs and then the rover will drive a safe distance away before the helicopter performs its test flights. These tests include flight up to five times, a short vertical jaunt to hover for about 30 seconds at an altitude of 10 feet and progressing to fly distances up to a few hundred yards and durations up to 90 seconds. These tests will also ensure that the use of the helicopter puts no risk on the rover and that the dust generated by the aircraft does not impede the rover’s individual mission.
Mars Helicopter Specs
While the small rotorcraft is similar to a drone in that it will be remotely controlled, it has some impressive specs that can be compared to commonly used helicopters here on Earth. The Mars helicopter has been specifically designed to fly in the planet’s thin atmosphere. It has twin counter-rotating blades, weighs about four pounds, and has a fuselage the size of a softball, NASA has said. Its blades will spin at almost 3,000 rpm, roughly 10 times the rate employed by helicopters on Earth.
“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, on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up,” said Aung.
The helicopter contains solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries. A heating mechanism will be on-board to keep it warm during frigid nights. The helicopter will carry two cameras, one for navigation, and another for higher-resolution color aerial imagery.
“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 of NASA’s science mission directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.