NASA Is Sending a Helicopter to Mars

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

Once the helicopter is transported to Mars by way of the rover, it will begin flying around the planet on its own.

The Mars Helicopter, a small, self-flying aircraft designed specifically for the Red Planet, will be included in the space agency's next rover mission in 2020 to beam back a birds-eye view of Martian terrain.

A remote-controlled helicopter to Mars Helicopter weighs 1.8 kg and the size of a small ball.

Due to the atmospheric difference between Earth and Mars, the helicopter will be the equivalent of 100,000 feet in the air at home when it is on the ground on Mars. 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.

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After the rover lands, it will place the helicopter on the ground and retreat to a safe distance.

After its batteries are charged and tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the helicopter to take its first autonomous flight. The announcement just came today from NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former congressman who was recently appointed to the position without having any background in science.

A successful test could open the door to using helicopters as scouts on future missions, surveying terrain that might be hard for rovers to navigate and even accessing locations that are unreachable via ground travel.

The helicopter has been in development since 2013, and has been considered as a potential candidate to launch to Mars, but it's finally received official confirmation that it will ride in the "belly panel" of Mars 2020 until the rover touches down. Mars 2020 is planned for launch in July 2020 with an arrival on the surface of Mars expected in February 2021.

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So, what exactly is the Mars Helicopter?

The craft will undergo a 30-day test campaign once it reaches the Red Planet to demonstrate the viability of travel above the Martian surface with a heavier-than-air craft. It is specifically created to fly in the atmosphere of Mars, which is 100 times thinner than Earth's. Its blades will spin almost 3,000 litres, approximately 10 times the rate employed by helicopters on the planet.

The remote-controlled Mars Helicopter, created to take flight in the thin Martian atmosphere with twin counter-rotating blades, weighs about four pounds (1.8 kilograms), with a fuselage the size of a softball, NASA said.

According to Bridenstine, the success of the "marscopter" may enable more ambitious missions in the future.

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