NASA plans autonomous helicopters to land on Mars in 2020

NASA depiction of the helicopter to travel on the Mars 2020 mission

NASA depiction of the helicopter to travel on the Mars 2020 mission

Solar cells will charge its lithium-ion batteries. "The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it's already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up", Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, said in a statement.

In five decades of exploring Mars, NASA has sent orbiters, landers and rovers to explore Earth's neighbor. The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling.

NASA announced that it will send the first ever Mars Helicopter along with the Mars 2020 rover. The Mars helicopter is now set to be attached to the belly of the 2020 Mars rover - adding extra capabilities to the successor of the massively successful Curiosity rover. In the event it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel. It will do so attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.

The launch of the Mars helicopter will help make up for sme of the drawbacks of heavier-than-air vehicles as we take steps to further explore the Red Planet. Mars Helicopter will be flying in an atmosphere that's as thin as altitudes of 100,000 feet on Earth, compared to an average helicopter on earth which just flies 40,000 feet high.

The Mars helicopter is capable of whirling 3000 whirls per minute which is roughly 10 times the rate of helicopters we use regularly here in Earth - ensuring a seamless flight despite the massively different conditions on Mars when compared to flight launches on our own planet.

Even with no human pilot, the helicopter drone will be largely autonomous with little input from scientists on Earth but could plot a path ahead of a ground-based rover like Curiosity to make sure the terrain is safe. For starters the 'copter will climb to 3 meters, hover for 30 seconds, then descend.

NASA is sending a light, autonomous rotorcraft, dubbed the Mars Helicopter, to demonstrate the viability of heavier-than-air vehicles on Mars and get a bird's eye view of the red planet.

"If we were to fly the helicopter as a tech demonstration on something like Mars 2020, we would envision a very small number of flights to prove the aerodynamic and handling characteristics, and the concept of operations, and that would be the end of the demonstration", Watzin said.

As a technology demonstration, the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. The six-wheeled rover will hunt for signs of habitable environments as well as sites that may have once hosted microbial life, examining the Red Planet with 23 cameras, a microphone and a drill to collect samples. NASA's Launch Services Program, based at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.

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