NASA to Send Autonomous Helicopter to Mars

NASA plans autonomous helicopters to land on Mars in 2020

Aerospace Agency of the USA (NASA) and European space Agency (ESA) are working on an ambitious project to deliver to Earth soil and rocks from Mars.

NASA announced this afternoon that it plans to launch a tiny, four-pound, autonomous helicopter along with its 2020 rover mission.

While Russian missions to Venus dropped balloons into its atmosphere, this helicopter will be both the first powered flying machine and the first human-designed heavier-than-air vehicle to visit another planet.

An administrator at NASA, Jim Bridenstine, recently posted a concept clip of the drone on Twitter. This first-ever spaceborne all-sky transit survey will identify planets ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants, around a wide range of stellar types and orbital distances. However, it's no secret that these rovers are not the most agile of tools nor are they the easiest to maneuver through the rocky terrains of Mars.

Weighing in at just 1.8kg, the Mars Helicopter has a fuselage roughly the size of a softball, as well as solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights.

"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", said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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Knowing what the Mars helicopter is capable of is all well and good, but we won't get an accurate idea of how the craft functions until we see it deployed on the Red Planet itself - a goal which NASA will likely achieve sooner rather than later. The twin blades of the helicopter will rotate ten times faster than the helicopters on Earth. "We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit".

The helicopter will ride to Mars attached to the rover's belly pan, officials said. However, if it does work, helicopters may have a real future in interplanetary exploration.

However, reality is not that simple as unlike Earth's atmosphere, the Martian atmosphere is 100 times thinner which poses enormous challenges for a helicopter. NASA has tested the helicopter prototype in a Mars-like atmosphere, proving that it will be able to take flight on the red planet.

Since it still takes several minutes for the signal between Earth and Mars to reach the drone even when traveling at light speed, it's only natural to make the flying vehicle partially autonomous.

NASA hopes that the helicopter will fly around 10 feet high and then stay hovering stable for 30 seconds for its firs test flight. "On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds".

The Mars 2020 mission is due to arrive at the red planet in February 2021.

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