Focus-Science and Technology - - Discoveries -

NASA has built a he­li­copter that’s light and pow­er­ful enough to fly in Mars’s thin at­mos­phere, and it’ll travel to the Red Planet as part of the Mars 2020 Rover mis­sion.

The he­li­copter weighs just un­der two kilo­grams and has two ro­tors stacked on top of each other that spin in op­po­site di­rec­tions at al­most 3,000rpm – 10 times the rate of a he­li­copter on Earth – to keep it in the air in the thin Martin at­mos­phere. It is clad with so­lar cells to charge its lithium-ion bat­ter­ies and is fit­ted with a heat­ing mech­a­nism to pre­vent it from freez­ing over dur­ing the chilly Mar­tian nights.

“The al­ti­tude record for a he­li­copter fly­ing here on Earth is about 40,000 feet [12,192m]. The at­mos­phere of Mars is only 1 per cent that of Earth, so when our he­li­copter is on the Mar­tian sur­face, it’s al­ready at the Earth equiv­a­lent of 100,000 feet [30,480m] up,” said Mimi Aung, the project man­ager of Mars He­li­copter at NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory. “To make it fly at that low at­mo­spheric den­sity, we had to scru­ti­nise ev­ery­thing, make it as light as pos­si­ble while be­ing as strong and as pow­er­ful as it can pos­si­bly be.”

The he­li­copter will travel to the Red Planet with the Mars rover as part of its 2020 mis­sion. The rover will de­liver the he­li­copter to a suit­able launch site, where it’ll em­bark on its first flight: a short ver­ti­cal climb three me­tres off the ground, fol­lowed by a 30-sec­ond hover. Over the next 30 days of test­ing, it’ll grad­u­ally build up to flights of a few hun­dred me­tres. Since Earth is a sev­eral light-min­utes away, there’s no way for hu­mans to con­trol the flights in real-time. In­stead, the he­li­copter will pi­lot it­self, with the abil­ity to re­ceive and in­ter­pret com­mands.

If suc­cess­ful, the project will prove that he­li­copters can be used as low-fly­ing scouts on Mars, and pave the way for other, more am­bi­tious, projects.

If the Mars he­li­copter is a suc­cess, then low-fly­ing scouts could be used to of­fer a bird’s-eye view of the Red Planet

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