“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said NASA 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.”
A light-weight, autonomous rotorcraft touted as “marscopter” will be included in NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission scheduled to launch in July 2020.
The helicopter which will be attached to the rover will display the viability of heavier-than-air vehicles on Mars. The helicopter project started as a technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, California) in August 2013. The helicopter weighs around 1.8 kg and is 1.1 m in height. This design made the final cut after four years of re-design and testing. The blades of this helicopter will rotate at 3,000 rpm in the Martian atmosphere which is about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.
It was made sure that the design was light-weight as much as possible while being strong and powerful at the same. This was to help the helicopter fly at a low atmospheric density in Mars. Once the helicopter flies in Mars, it is already 100,000 feet up in compared to 40,000 feet which are the standard height when a helicopter flies on earth.
NASA plans to deploy the helicopter for a 30-day flight test with up to five flights covering extensive areas progressively. Recently, NASA released an animated video of the helicopter with actual flight test footage of how it would operate and function on a Martian atmosphere.
Once the rover reaches Mars, it will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands to the marscopter. The purpose of the helicopter will be to check and locate various sites and points of interests, almost every day. This will deliver visual information to scientists and engineers back on earth who will choose which sites to explore.
The helicopter also contains built-in capabilities to combat the cold Martian nights by charging its lithium-ion batteries using solar cells.
Another key feature of the helicopter would be to check out the best sites for the rover to identify and collect soil and rock samples. The rover will then go identify and collect samples to conduct geological assessments such as determining the environment, signs of life, and natural resources for future missions by human explorers. These samples will then be encased and left on the Martian surface to explore further in the future.