NASA's Mars Helicopter Will Ride Along With 2020 Rover

NASA's Mars Helicopter Will Ride Along With 2020 Rover

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Engineers have been trying to flawless the weight and shape of the helicopter for it to be able to fly in the thin air of Mars.

The Mars Helicopter will be included in the Mars 2020 Rover mission which was announced on May 11.

"NASA has a proud history of firsts", NASA's administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said in a statement. If the helicopter tips over during landing or falls out of the sky, it won't be possible to fix it from millions of miles away.

The craft will be autonomous but will have a wireless connection to the Mars 2020 rover to exchange data.

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. 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.

The mission will also test a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying available resources, understanding the weather and other characteristics that will affect manned missions to the red planet. For power, the vehicle packs two counter-rotating blades that will whirl 3,000 times a minute - 10 times the rate of a standard Earth-based helicopter - and enable a seamless flight.

While Bernoulli's Principle holds on Mars, the red planet's atmosphere is vastly thinner than Earth's so a copter needs to be lighter and rotate its blades faster to achieve lift.

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If this Mars helicopter launch works as planned, we may soon have our hands on a brand new way to explore the surface of foreign planets.

Because of its enormous distance - Earth will be several minutes away, traveling at the speed of light - Aung said that direct control will be impossible. However, if it does work, helicopters may have a real future in interplanetary exploration.

The full 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally farther flight distances, up to a few hundred meters, and longer durations as long as 90 seconds, over a period.

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. On its first flight, the vehicle will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters) and remain there for 30 seconds before landing.

The craft will launch onboard the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July 2020 and is expected to arrive on Mars in February 2021.

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

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