NASA has announced plans to fly an unmanned aircraft on Mars to demonstrate the viability and potential of “heavier than air” vehicles on the Red Planet.
The small, autonomous Mars Helicopter will travel with the agency’s Mars 2020 rover mission, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020.
“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” says Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator. “The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery and exploration missions to Mars.”
First started in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Mars Helicopter is the result of the team’s four years of design, testing and redesign. Weighing in at a little under four pounds, the drone has fuselage about the size of a softball. Its twin counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rpm – about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth, according to NASA.
“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,” states Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. “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.”
NASA says the unmanned helicopter also contains built-in capabilities needed for operation at Mars, including solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold nights. But before the helicopter can fly at Mars, it has to get there; it will do so attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover, explains NASA.
“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up,” says Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. “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.”
Once the rover is on the planet’s surface, NASA will find a suitable location to deploy the aircraft down from the vehicle and place it onto the ground. The rover then will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands. After its batteries are charged and a myriad of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight into history, explains NASA.
“We don’t have a pilot, and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time,” continues Aung. “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.”
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. On its first flight, the unmanned helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds.
As a technology demonstration, the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project, notes NASA. If it does not work, the Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted. If it does work, this type of aircraft may have a real future as a low-flying scout to access locations not reachable by ground travel.
“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” adds Zurbuchen. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface, as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”
Mars 2020 will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and it is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.