In under two years, a helicopter could take wing on another planet for the first time. NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars.
The Mars Helicopter concept is that of a small, autonomously flying rotorcraft. It will be ferried to Mars along with the Mars 2020 rover, which is currently scheduled to launch in July 2020. The helicopter is a test of how viable a heavier-than-air craft is on the Red Planet.
"The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a press release.
The helicopter for Mars has been in various stages of development since the project was launched in August 2013 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The entire craft weighs under 2 kilograms, according to the release.
Its body is roughly the size of a football, lifted by a pair of identical, counter-rotating blades that are designed to bite into the thin atmosphere on Mars at 3,000 rpm (that's ten times as fast as a helicopter on Earth). This will only get it a few metres off the surface.
Mars' atmosphere is so rarefied as compared to Earth's that the air just over the Martian surface, where this chopper will fly, is only as dense as the air at 100,000 feet (over 30,000 metres). To put that number in perspective, commercial airlines only fly at about 13,000 m.
"After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world," Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate said.
Powered and sustained, sure, but controlling a craft on Mars in real time is still rather impossible from Earth. Once the rover and chopper have safely landed on the ground, engineers plan to program the rover to deploy the helicopter safely and move it to a safe location for its first few tests.
The Mars helicopter will be controlled akin to all the Mars rovers so far " a series of programmed instructions sent from engineers on Earth that the chopper will autonomously carry out without any real-time navigation or joystick controls.
In the 30-days of testing, which will happen on Mars, NASA plans to carry out five flights at incremental distances. The longest of these flights will cover a distance of a few hundred meters and involve up to 90 seconds of continuous flight, according to the release. On its maiden flight, the helicopter will make a short, vertical climb to an altitude of 3 meters, where it will hover for about 30 seconds before it descends again.
The Mars helicopter's companion, the Mars 2020 rover, will conduct many tests of the geology of its landing site, find out how habitable the environment is to support life (and human colonies) and search for signatures of ancient life on Mars. Among the rover's missions is a sample collection experiment of rock and soil, which the rover will seal in tubes and leave behind on the planet's surface to be returned to Earth on a future Mars mission.
NASA plans to launch Mars 2020 on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It's expected to get its first taste of Mars in February 2021.