NASA is just over a year away from the launch of the Mars 2020 rover, and all systems are go for the rover’s flying passenger. After completing its flight test early this year, the Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS) is undergoing final preparation and could join the rover this summer. If it works as planned, the MHS will be the first flying machine on another planet.
Back in January, the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory used an atmospheric chamber and a “gravity offload system” to show that the probe can indeed fly under Mars-like conditions. That was never a certainty when the project started. Mars has only 40 percent of Earth’s gravity, but its atmosphere is 1 percent as dense. It takes a very light, efficient helicopter to have any hope of getting airborne. The MHS weighs just 4 pounds on Earth, the equivalent of 1.6 pounds on Mars.
Following that test, the MHS made its way back to Lockheed Martin Space in Denver. Since arriving there, engineers have tested the helicopter with the Mars Helicopter Delivery System that will hold it against the underside of the rover until it’s deployed. Specifically, Lockheed Martin verified the helicopter will fit snugly in the docking bracket and won’t end up damaged from vibrations during launch or landing. Last month, the MHS headed back to JPL where the team installed a new solar panel and conducted additional tests on the vehicle’s rotor blades to ensure the 1,500 pieces of carbon fiber, aluminum, silicon, copper, and aerogel still work correctly.
JPL expects to complete its testing over the summer. After that, it will head to the High Bay 1 clean room to be integrated with the Mars 2020 rover. The next time it’s free of the rover will be when it’s on Mars in February 2021. The launch is currently on the books for July 2020 aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket.
NASA is careful to point out that the MHS is just a technology demonstrator. It’s possible the vehicle won’t work very well, but there are no vital instruments onboard. The helicopter only has a pair of cameras that can snap photos from the air. Future missions could add useful science modules to airborne probes, but this one could still help the team on Earth drive the rover around obstacles and spot interesting geological formations.