Science

Mars Helicopter to launch as part of Nasa's 2020 mission

Mars Helicopter to launch as part of Nasa's 2020 mission

The helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward endeavor.

The Mars Helicopter will be included in the Mars 2020 Rover mission which was announced on May 11. The BBC said this could be the first test of "heavier-than-air aircraft on another planet". The autonomous helicopter needs it because of the low atmospheric density on Mars. The Mars Helicopter weighs just under four pounds, with a fuselage about as big as a softball.

The helicopter, which will be attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover, has built-in solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights.

Perhaps most excitingly, NASA believes that if it is successful and makes it for the Mars 2020 mission, even future astronauts could one-day fly helicopters on Mars.

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But according to Spaceflight Now, it seems that childhood idea might not be as unlikely as we once though as engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been working for the past four years to design a helicopter that could be a part of the next Martian rover mission in 2020. 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. Our next rover to Mars will carry the first helicopter ever to fly over the surface of another world.

However, reality is not that simple as unlike Earth's atmosphere, the Martian atmosphere is 100 times thinner which poses enormous challenges for a helicopter. Once deployed and its batteries are charged, multiple tests will be performed before controllers on Earth command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight.

Because of its huge distance - Earth will be several minutes away, traveling at the speed of light - Aung said that direct control will be impossible. With each successive flight, the duration (90 seconds max) and distance covered will be increased (up to a few hundred meters).

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. It will also climb to 10 feet (3 m) and hover for about 30 seconds. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve". If this little helicopter works as intended, it will set the stage for future, more complex rotorcrafts created to act as scouts that can explore and map regions of Mars where scientists can't even dream to send a rover. If it crashes or doesn't work as well as hoped, the 2020 rover will still operate normally. Scientists will use the instruments aboard the rover to identify and collect samples of rock and soil, encase them in sealed tubes, and leave them on the planet's surface for potential return to Earth on a future Mars mission. NASA's Launch Services Program, based at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.