NASA has long been able to check out Mars on the ground with rovers and landers and from far above with orbital spacecraft. Now, it wants to prove that it can sustainably fly around the planet’s thin atmosphere at low altitude — with a tiny helicopter.
NASA announced Friday it will send the Mars Helicopter to the Red Planet with the previously announced Mars 2020 rover, set to launch in two years from Florida.
The hope is that aircraft like this one — flying mechanical scouts — will eventually give scientists another vantage point from which to observe Mars.
The helicopter will be mankind’s first attempt to fly a heavier-than-air craft — think helicopter or airplane — in an atmosphere other than Earth’s, the space agency said.
Its mission will be to take five test flights after it lands with the rover in February 2021.
“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.
3,000 revolutions per minute
The small copter — its main body will be about the size of a softball — will be attached to the rover’s belly pan. After the rover lands, it will place the helicopter on the ground and move away.
After the helicopter’s solar cells charge its lithium-ion batteries, NASA controllers on Earth will prepare the craft for its tricky test flights.
To rise into the Mars’ thin atmosphere, the helicopter’s two counter-rotating blades will turn at nearly 3,000 revolutions per minute, or more than 10 times as fast as a helicopter’s blades on Earth, NASA says.
“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only 1% that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up,” Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news release.
“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,” she said.