NASA to Send Autonomous Helicopter to Mars

The Mars Helicopter, a technology demonstration that will travel to the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, will attempt controlled flight in the thin Martian atmosphere.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

“Exploring the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future,” said Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington.

Started in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Mars Helicopter had to prove that big things could come in small packages.

The result of the team’s four years of design, testing and redesign weighs in at little under 1.8 kg. Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rpm — about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.

The helicopter also contains built-in capabilities needed for operation at Mars, including solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights.

“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet (12.2 km),” said Mars Helicopter project manager Dr. Mimi Aung, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“The atmosphere of Mars is only 1% that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet (30.5 km) up.”

“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.”

Once the Mars 2020 rover is on the Martian surface, a suitable location will be found to deploy the helicopter down from the vehicle and place it onto the ground.

The rover then will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands. After its batteries are charged and a myriad of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the helicopter to take its first autonomous flight into history.

“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,” Dr. Aung said.

“Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.”

The full 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally farther flight distances, up to a few hundred feet, and longer durations as long as 90 seconds, over a period.

On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 m), where it will hover for about 30 seconds.

As 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. If it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” Dr. Zurbuchen said.

“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.”

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