NASA to Send Autonomous Helicopter to Mars

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Once it's there, the rover will drive to a suitable take-off site, detach the helicopter, and drive away.

NASA has confirmed its upcoming Mars 2020 rover will carry a small robotic passenger.

As for how feasible it is to build the drone, NASA's director of robotic Mars exploration Jim Watzin said that it has performed nearly 90 minutes of testing using a model within a Martian atmosphere test chamber. The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. If it does work, NASA will be able to build on the design for future Mars missions. "This exciting and visionary achievement will inspire young people all over the United States to become scientists and engineers, paving the way for even greater discoveries in the future". 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. It took four years of testing and tweaking to make the first prototype of the Mars-bound helicopter.

The helicopter's twin blades will whirl at about 10 times the rate of a helicopter's blades on Earth - at 3,000 rpm - to stay aloft in Mars' thin atmosphere. However, it's no secret that these rovers are not the most agile of tools nor are they the easiest to maneuver through the rocky terrains of Mars.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

The Martian helicopter also features another innovation: it's powered by solar cells that charge lithium batteries. It will get to Mars by attaching to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover. Now, for the first time, NASA wants to send a helicopter to Mars, which is meant to fly in very rarefied Martian atmosphere.

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"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 added.

The Mars helicopter will ride to the planet attached to the underside of the 2020 rover. Instead, the machine is created to receive pre-programmed commands from Earth, then execute them on its own, always autonomously navigating the environment in real-time.

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. For starters the 'copter will climb to 3 meters, hover for 30 seconds, then descend.

Since it is a technology demonstration, the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. If it does not work, the Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted. The new Mars Helicopter will serve as a low-flying scout and could pave a way for similar missions that might provide access to hard-to-reach regions on Martian surface.

But if this endeavor truly takes off (sorry) it could add a valuable and revealing new dimension to space exploration missions down the road.

The Mars 2020 mission is due to arrive at the red planet in February 2021.

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