NASA to Send Helicopter to Mars in 2020 Mission

NASA depiction of the helicopter to travel on the Mars 2020 mission

Dubbed the Mars Helicopter, the rotorcraft is hitching a ride to the Red Planet as part of NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission. The Mars 2020 mission is due to arrive at the red planet in February 2021.

The atmosphere of Mars is 100 times thinner than that of Earth and flying an autonomous chopper in that kind of air could prove extremely hard.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said that NASA has a proud history of firsts and the idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling.

NASA describes the Mars Helicopter as a high-risk, high-reward project.

The helicopter's twin blades will whirl at about 10 times the rate of a helicopter's blades on Earth - at 3,000 rpm - to stay aloft in Mars' thin atmosphere.

The helicopter is being developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

The altitude record for helicopters on Earth is 40,000 feet; above that, the air isn't dense enough to hold copters aloft.

"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", NASA's Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said.

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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 autonomous helicopter needs it because of the low atmospheric density on Mars.

That said, it is also worth noting that NASA has said if the flight demonstration is not successful, there won't be any effect on how the next Mars rover goes about its job.

"If we were to fly the helicopter as a tech demonstration on something like Mars 2020, we would envision a very small number of flights to prove the aerodynamic and handling characteristics, and the concept of operations, and that would be the end of the demonstration", Watzin said.

The current plan is for the Mars helicopter to perform five flights over a period of around 30 days, with each successive flight increasing the distance up to an eventual length of 90 seconds and several hundred meters. The Mars helicopter is now set to be attached to the belly of the 2020 Mars rover - adding extra capabilities to the successor of the massively successful Curiosity rover. If it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", he added.

"Though the agency already has an orbiter lurking in space, it is way high up".

But before any of that happens, the rover has to be sent to and deployed on the red planet.

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