When NASA launches its next rover to Mars, the vehicle will have a small helicopter for the trip. NASA announced today that it will send a small autonomous flying helicopter, aptly named the Mars Helicopter, with the next rover Mars 2020. The helicopter will try to fly through the Martian air to see if the vehicles can even levitate on Mars, where the atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth's.
The design of the Mars Helicopter has been under construction for the past four years at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but the space agency had not yet decided whether it would actually send the vehicle to Mars. NASA needed to determine if this technology was really feasible and if the agency had enough money in its budget to include the helicopter, according to Spaceflight Now . Now it seems that the agency has decided that this idea of the helicopter could really work.
But even if the helicopter can not fly, it will not affect the overall mission of the Mars 2020 mobile vehicle – the successor to NASA's Curiosity rover that is already on the surface of the Red Planet. But if the Mars Helicopter yes flies, it can capture a strange bird's eye view of Mars with its two cameras, something that had never been done before. And that may mean that it is possible to send future flying vehicles to Mars to explore places that are difficult to access.
JPL engineers have been working to make the weight and shape of the helicopter perfect, so that it can fly through the thin air of Mars. The tallest that any helicopter has ever flown on Earth is 40,000 feet tall. But the Mars Helicopter will fly in an atmosphere that is as thin as altitudes of 100,000 feet on Earth, according to NASA. So, the robot has to be small and lightweight: it weighs only four pounds (1.8 kilograms) on Earth and is about the size of a softball. The helicopter also has twin blades that rotate 10 times faster than the helicopter here on our planet.
The plan is for the Mars Helicopter to fly to the bottom of the Mars 2020 mobile vehicle. Once the rover lands on the surface of the planet, you will find a good place to drop the helicopter, unfurl it, and then roll away. Eventually, the helicopter will try to take off, and it will have to fly by itself as well. Since Earth is so far from Mars, it will take several minutes to send the helicopter commands. Ultimately, the vehicle will attempt to make five autonomous flights during a period of 30 days; the trips could last up to 90 seconds.
"NASA has a proud history of firsts," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement Friday afternoon, in the middle of the release of SpaceX's Block 5. "The idea of a helicopter flying through the skies of another planet is exciting: the Mars Helicopter is very promising for our future missions of science, discovery and exploration to Mars."
The Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to be launched on an Atlas V rocket, manufactured by the United Launch Alliance, from Cape Canaveral, Florida in July 2020. The spacecraft will land on Mars in February 2021.