NASA is sending a helicopter to the red planet, but it won’t fly there on its own — it will be attached to the belly pan of the space agency’s Mars Rover, lifting off in 2020.
While the science laboratories continue to provide invaluable data about the Red Planet, their limited, or zero – as is the case with landers – mobility, restricts the space exploration vehicles to areas close to the original landing site.
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To obtain a more comprehensive view of Mars, the US Space Agency plans to send a fully-autonomous miniature test helicopter with the Mars 2020 rover, scheduled for launch in July 2020.
“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 at the agency headquarters in Washington DC.
“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.”
The softball-sized “marscopter” weighs about four pounds and is fitted with two sets of rotor blades, which can spin at 3000 rotations a minute – about ten times the speed of helicopters on Earth.
The lightweight and rapid speed are essential for the aircraft to be able to fly in the thin Mars atmosphere, which is estimated to be just one percent of that of Earth.
“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,” Mimi Aung, Mars helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in a statement.
If successful, the tiny helicopter will be the first heavier-than-air vehicle to fly within Mars’ thin atmosphere!
To withstand the Red Planet’s minus 195 degrees F (minus 125 degrees C) night-time temperatures, the “marscopter” has been fitted with a heating element, which uses solar-powered lithium-ion batteries.
Since it won’t be possible to communicate with the helicopter in real time from Earth, the device will be autonomous enough to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.