Published: Sat, May 12, 2018
Sci-tech | By Brandy Patterson

Meet NASA's robot helicopter of Mars

Meet NASA's robot helicopter of Mars

And if you think this sounds relatively cool, well: You're right.

NASA hopes to launch the prototype to Mars with the agency's 2020 rover, which is created to hunt for signs of past life on the red planet.

This illustration shows what the Mars Helicopter might look like as it readies for takeoff. For example: the red planet's particularly-weak atmosphere and the communication delay between ground control here on Earth and the rover. The Martian atmosphere is quite thin - just about 1 percent of Earth's - so flying in such low air density is a challenge.

"The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet (12,200 meters)". Its blades will spin at nearly 3,000 rpm, roughly 10 times the rate employed by helicopters on Earth.

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The "marscopter" will be one of the components of the Mars survey mission scheduled to blast off in July 2020, the U.S. space agency announced on Friday.

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The idea for the Mars Helicopter began in 2013 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory when researchers began to experiment with designs.

Solar cells will charge the helicopter's lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism should keep it from freezing in the cold Martian nights. If successful, it would be the first time humanity has deployed a helicopter on another planet. "When our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it's already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up".

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The mission plan calls for the rover to set the drone down on the surface, drive away and relay the commands for up to five autonomous flights, lasting as long as 90 seconds each and ranging up to a few hundred yards (meters) away.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", according to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "If it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel". "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve".

He added, though, that Mars 2020 has worked to accommodate the helicopter, and was not concerned about any technical risk to the mission from it. The mission is scheduled to take off on the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida, and reach Mars in February 2021. The rover also will cache rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth. At a meeting of the National Academies' Space Studies Board May 3, Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020, said he and others on the mission had concerns about flying that technology demonstration.

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