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NASA's Next Mars Rover Is Taking A Small Helicopter Along For The Ride

May 11, 2018 11:48 PM EDT
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Mankind takes another step in the journey to Mars as NASA sets their sights on flying a small helicopter on the Red Planet by 2020.

The aptly named Mars Helicopter is all primed to make history.

Mars Helicopter

NASA announced that the rovercraft will hitch a ride on the Mars 2020 rover, which takes off on July 2020. It's expected to reach the planet on February 2021.

"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," Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, says in a statement. "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."

The small and autonomous helicopter is expected to test how heavier-than-air vehicles will perform in the Red Planet.

Prepping Helicopters For Mars Flight

The Mars Helicopter weighs in at nearly 4 pounds with a fuselage roughly the size of a softball and blades that spin 10 times the rate of an Earth-bound helicopter.

It will also feature numerous built-in capabilities such as solar cells for charging the batteries and a heater.

Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, says that the altitude record for helicopter flight on Earth is around 40,000 feet. However, since Mars's atmosphere is just 1 percent of Earth's, a helicopter that's just sitting on the surface of the Red Planet is already at the equivalent of 100,000 feet on Earth.

"To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be," Aung adds.

Once the helicopter is placed on Mars, the rover will move to a safe distance and relay commands. Then it will take its very first autonomous flight in Mars and make history. The Earth is too far away to control the Mars Helicopter remotely.

"Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own," Aung explains.

There will be a 30-day flight period consisting of five flights, each one a progression of farther flight distances.

Space Exploration With Helicopters

BBC notes that existing vehicles on Mars have been wheeled ones bound on the planet's surface, which is prone to running into obstacles. It's also limited to the open expanses of the planet.

The Mars Helicopter potentially offers NASA the freedom and ability to explore Mars at a greater degree.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers," Zurbuchen says. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter,' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve."

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