Science

In an Interplanetary First, NASA to Fly a Helicopter on Mars

In an Interplanetary First, NASA to Fly a Helicopter on Mars

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is sending a helicopter to Mars.

"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.

NASA Administrator Jim Brindenstine said: "The idea of a helicopter flying in the skies of another planet is thrilling".

The strategy is for the Mars Helicopter to fly affixed to the bottom of the Mars 2020 vagabond. The chopper is also light, weighing a little under four pounds (1.8 kilograms). On Mars, however, the atmosphere at the surface is comparable to the Earth's atmosphere at 100,000 feet.

But don't let its cute stature fool you; this little fellow packs a lot of power and its twin blades are able to rotate 10 times faster than what we normally see here on Earth, reaching nearly 3,000 revolutions per minute. The height record for a helicopter flight on Earth is 12,100 meters, explained Nasa project manager Mimi Aung.

Once the helicopter is transported to Mars by way of the rover, it will begin flying around the planet on its own.

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Controllers on Earth will command the Mars Helicopter, which was created to receive and interpret commands from the ground.

Pilots on Earth will control the next-generation aircraft for small test flights at first, and then gradually expand the range and duration as they determine its potential to scout and study previously inaccessible locations. The helicopter also contains solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism.

Even if the aerial project flops on arrival, it won't hurt the main Mars 2020 rover mission, which is scheduled for launch in the summer of that year to land in February 2021.

Because Earth will be several light minutes away, "there is no way to joystick this mission in real time", Aung said.

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, over a period. The rover is created to carry out geological reports also to ascertain the habitability of this Martian environment, NASA explained.