NASA's Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency's Mars 2020 rover, now scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.
Dubbed the Mars Helicopter, the rotorcraft is hitching a ride to the Red Planet as part of NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission. With an atmosphere that is 100 times thinner than what we see here on Earth, the ability to create a Mars helicopter was a massive undertaking - but NASA has been working towards this goal in one capacity or another since 2013, making changes as needed in order to produce a craft that will get the job done. The Mars Helicopter weighs just under four pounds, with a fuselage about as big as a softball. It will carry solar cells to charge up in the light of the sun and a heating mechanism to endure cold nights on the Red Planet. If this little helicopter works as intended, it will set the stage for future, more complex rotorcrafts created to act as scouts that can explore and map regions of Mars where scientists can't even dream to send a rover.
If this Mars helicopter launch works as planned, we may soon have our hands on a brand new way to explore the surface of foreign planets.
Since it still takes several minutes for the signal between Earth and Mars to reach the drone even when traveling at light speed, it's only natural to make the flying vehicle partially autonomous. It will do so attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover. Instead, the machine is created to receive pre-programmed commands from Earth, then execute them on its own, always autonomously navigating the environment in real-time.
The helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward endeavor.
The helicopter will attempt up to five flights, going farther and operating for longer each time - up to a few hundred meters and 90 seconds, officials said. For starters the 'copter will climb to 3 meters, hover for 30 seconds, then descend.
The craft will launch onboard the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July 2020 and is expected to arrive on Mars in February 2021.
But if this endeavor truly takes off (sorry) it could add a valuable and revealing new dimension to space exploration missions down the road.
The rover will conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers.
For example: the Red Planet's particularly-weak atmosphere and the communication delay between ground control here on Earth and the rover.
The Mars 2020 Project at JPL in Pasadena, California, manages rover development for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.