Published: Mon, May 14, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

NASA plans autonomous helicopters to land on Mars in 2020

NASA plans autonomous helicopters to land on Mars in 2020

Meanwhile, NASA added that the next Mars rover which will play a crucial part in the 2020 mission is in the midst of assembly, where it will spend its operational life searching for organic compounds to see if life ever flourished on the Red Planet.

"So when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it's already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up".

"If we were to fly the helicopter as a tech demonstration on something like Mars 2020, we would envision a very small number of flights to prove the aerodynamic and handling characteristics, and the concept of operations, and that would be the end of the demonstration", Watzin said.

The experimental, softball-sized drone would be the first airborne vehicle to fly around within Mars's atmosphere other than the landers that have delivered other, ground-based rovers. Mars' atmosphere is also a lot thinner in comparison (1%) to our own and thus, the blades of the helicopter will rotate at 10 times the speed at which they would on Earth at 3000 rpm which will allow it to fly there.

The Mars Helicopter's development began in 2013 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Engineers have been trying to flawless the weight and shape of the helicopter for it to be able to fly in the thin air of Mars.

"The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet [12,000 meters]", MiMi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, said in the statement. Twin counter-rotating blades will spin at nearly 3,000 rpm, created to counteract Mars' thin atmosphere.

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"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's Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said. The rover then will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands. Equipped with solar cells to charge up in sunlight, the craft will survive chilling nights on the red planet by means of a heating mechanism.

"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", said Aung.

On the first test flight, NASA intends to have the helicopter climb 10 feet into the air and hover for 30 seconds. "We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit".

NASA officials said the rotorcraft will reach the Red Planet's surface attached to a car-sized rover. "The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth".

Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004 and has outlived its original plan for a 90-day mission. If the program works as NASA expects, the agency would have a whole new way to explore the 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.

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