NASA is planning to send the first unmanned helicopter to Mars in its mission scheduled to launch in 2020, to test the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the red planet.
Started in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), 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 kilograms.
Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rotations per minute – about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.
“After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world,” said Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington.
However, before the helicopter can fly at Mars it has to get there. It will do so attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.
The full 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally farther flight distances, up to a few hundred metres, and longer durations as long as 90 seconds, over a period.
On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to three metres, 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.
Mars 2020 will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.