NASA's next Mars rover mission to carry tiny helicopter

NASA's next Mars rover mission to carry tiny helicopter

After all, to them a helicopter is something which moves fast and low across the sky, so surely it would cover far more ground than a standard, wheeled rover?

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's Associate Administrator for science, said that the ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers, and the views from a helicopter flying across Mars will also provide NASA with a stellar public relations tool as it seeks global support for sending humans to the planet in the 2030s or later.

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.

The Mars 2020 Rover mission includes a drill-equipped lander that can drill into the Martian crust to look for "signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past" and "searching for signs of past microbial life".

The helicopter's twin blades will whirl at about 10 times the rate of a helicopter's blades on Earth - at 3,000 rpm - to stay aloft in Mars' thin atmosphere.

To get a sense of the challenge at hand, the helicopter needs to fly in atmospheric pressure just 1pc of what exists on Earth in a gravity field only three-eighths as strong. With each successive flight, the duration (90 seconds max) and distance covered will be increased (up to a few hundred meters).

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"The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet", said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. Mars's atmosphere is so thin that hovering just 10 feet above the surface is the equivalent of soaring 100,000 feet above Earth. The "Mars Helicopter", as NASA calls it, is a small autonomous rotorcraft that will demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the red planet. On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 3 metres where it will hover for about 30 seconds.

A small, autonomous helicopter could soon soar above the rusty rocks of Mars. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.

But if it is successful, it will be the first step in using helicopters as aerial scouts for rovers.

For example: the Red Planet's particularly-weak atmosphere and the communication delay between ground control here on Earth and the rover.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", said Zurbuchen. The space agency plans to do it as part of its next Mars mission. "We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit". If the program works as NASA expects, the agency would have a whole new way to explore the Martian surface.

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