NASA Is Preparing to Fly a Helicopter on Mars

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Mankind takes another step in the journey to Mars as NASA sets their sights on flying a small helicopter on the Red Planet by 2020.

The helicopter also contains built-in capabilities needed for operation at Mars, including solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights. "The atmosphere of Mars is only one 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 up", said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After placing the helicopter on the ground, the rover will be directed to drive to a safe distance to communicate signals. The copter won't be controllable in real time from Earth, due to the light-speed travel time involved.

NASA now has two cars roaming Mars - the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers.

Enlarge ImageA Mars Helicopter prototype undergoes some testing on Earth.                  Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser  CNET
Enlarge ImageA Mars Helicopter prototype undergoes some testing on Earth. Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser CNET

The pint-sized aircraft weighs just 1.8 kilograms; has a fuselage about the size of a softball; and twin, counter-rotating blades that will zip through the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000rpm - about 10 times the rate of similar craft on Earth. "This exciting and visionary achievement will inspire young people all over the United States to become scientists and engineers, paving the way for even greater discoveries in the future".

That would be a boon to any future missions to take samples on Mars and return them to Earth for analysis.

NASA mentioned that scientists are planning a 30-day flight test period that will include up to five flights, starting with a short vertical jaunt to hover for about 30 seconds at an altitude of 10 feet (3 meters) and progressing to flight distances up to a few hundred yards and durations up to 90 seconds.

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"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, in the statement.

The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project, according to NASA: If the helicopter fails, it won't affect the rest of the Mars 2020 rover's mission, but if it succeeds, the agency will have a powerful new tool to survey the planet and access now unreachable locations.

The aptly named Mars Helicopter is all primed to make history.

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The experimental, softball-sized drone would be the first airborne vehicle to fly around within Mars' atmosphere other than the landers that have delivered other, ground-based rovers.

The helicopter will have a relatively short mission, about 30 days in total. "Everybody agrees it will not put the mission at risk", he said. "We are working very hard for efficiencies and spending 30 days working on a technology demonstration that does not further those goals directly, from the science point of view, is a tradeoff that has to be made".

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