NASA has announced that its Mars 2020 mission will include a small helicopter.
NASA's Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency's Mars 2020 rover, now scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.
The miniature aircraft will spin its rotors at about ten times the speed of a terrestrial one, due to the extremely low density of Mars' atmosphere - only about one percent of Earth's. Essentially, the chopper will be attached to the belly of 2020 Mars rover, the successor of Curiosity, and flown to Mars. NASA's therefore designed a machine with blades that "will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at nearly 3,000 rpm - about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth", weighs just 1.8kg and has a " fuselage ... about the size of a softball". According to Mimi Aung, the Helicopter Project Manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, they do not have an autopilot because Earth will be several light minutes away, it is impossible to joystick the mission in real time. This first-ever spaceborne all-sky transit survey will identify planets ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants, around a wide range of stellar types and orbital distances. Mars Helicopter will be flying in an atmosphere that's as thin as altitudes of 100,000 feet on Earth, compared to an average helicopter on earth which just flies 40,000 feet high.
The helicopter's twin, counter-rotating blades will rotate at nearly 3,000 rpm - about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.
"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", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate in Washington. NASA is planning as many as five flights over a 30-day test campaign.
In order to fly in Mars' thin atmosphere, the space helicopter has to be super light, yet as powerful as possible. Instead, the craft will have "an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own". Flight data will be relayed back to Earth via the rover, and the helicopter could also help inform which direction the ground vehicle should travel.
On the first test flight, NASA intends to have the helicopter climb 10 feet into the air and hover for 30 seconds.
NASA considers the mission "a high-risk, high-reward project" and if it fails, it doesn't impact the rest of the rover's mission. The space agency plans to do it as part of its next Mars mission.
Mars 2020 is planned for launch in July 2020 with an arrival on the surface of Mars expected in February 2021.
If the tests work, NASA will be closer to exploring the Red Planet in a different way. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve".