A robot helicopter will fly the skies of Mars as part of the 2020 mission, NASA has announced, hoping to replicate the success of the Wright brothers on the red planet. And if you think this sounds relatively cool, well: You're right.
The helicopter has been in development since 2013, and has been considered as a potential candidate to launch to Mars, but it's finally received official confirmation that it will ride in the "belly panel" of Mars 2020 until the rover touches down. Those commands will take several minutes to reach the helicopter from Earth, so it will need some autonomous capabilities to make sure it can fly on its own, without anyone controlling it in real time. During the flight demonstrations, the helicopter's twin, counter-rotating blades will cut through the Martian atmosphere at nearly 3,000 rpm-about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.
That would be a boon to any future missions to take samples on Mars and return them to Earth for analysis.
"I am not an advocate for the helicopter and I don't believe the Mars 2020 project has been an advocate for the helicopter", he added.
That extra boost is necessary, because most Earth helicopters would be completely unable to travel in Mars' thin atmosphere. The helicopter will recharge its lithium-ion batteries between flights with solar cells.
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Once the rover is on the planet's surface, a suitable location will be found to deploy the helicopter down from the vehicle and place it onto the ground.
"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", said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the statement. On Mars, it will remove itself from the rover, and it will remain at a safe distance away from it.
Up to five flights are planned over the 30-day test campaign, starting with a flight where the helicopter will ascent to an altitude of three meters and hover for 30 seconds.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said the demonstration could blaze a trail for future robotic scouts on Mars. "We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit".
Mars 2020 will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021. The rover is created to carry out geological studies and ascertain the habitability of the Martian environment, NASA said. At a meeting of the National Academies' Space Studies Board May 3, Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020, said he and others on the mission had concerns about flying that technology demonstration.