HELICOPTER JOINING MARS 2020 MISSION
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