NASA to fly helicopter on the 'red planet': 2020 mission

Enlarge Image This illustration shows what the Mars Helicopter might look like as it readies for takeoff.                  NASA

Enlarge Image This illustration shows what the Mars Helicopter might look like as it readies for takeoff. NASA

However, since Mars's atmosphere is just 1 percent of Earth's, a helicopter that's just sitting on the surface of the Red Planet is already at the equivalent of 100,000 feet on Earth.

The U.S. space agency said Friday it plans to launch the first helicopter to Mars in 2020, a miniature, unmanned drone-like chopper that could boost our understanding of the red planet.

"NASA has a proud history of firsts", NASA's administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said in a statement.

The Mars 2020 rover mission, also managed by JPL, is scheduled for launch in February 2020, arriving on Mars one year later. "To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be", Aung said.

The helicopter's two blades will spin at close to 3,000 revolutions a minute, which Nasa says is about 10 times faster than a standard helicopter on Earth.

The Mars Helicopter is being envisioned as a major advancement for future exploration of the planet, providing a new way of exploring areas of the Mars surface that are not easily accessible by land. "After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world".

In a press release, NASA said the Mars Helicopter is "considered a high-risk, high-reward project".

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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.

Once the rover is on the planet's surface, a suitable location will be found to deploy the helicopter down from the vehicle and place it onto the ground.

The helicopter has solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights.

Up to five flights are planned over the 30-day test campaign, starting with a flight where the helicopter will ascent to an altitude of three meters and hover for 30 seconds.

The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project, according to NASA: If the helicopter fails, it won't affect the rest of the Mars 2020 rover's mission, but if it succeeds, the agency will have a powerful new tool to survey the planet and access now unreachable locations. "We are working very hard for efficiencies and spending 30 days working on a technology demonstration that does not further those goals directly, from the science point of view, is a tradeoff that has to be made".

If it is successful, it might pave the way for similar craft to act as low-flying scouts to help access parts of Mars 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". 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.

The potential addition of Mars Helicopter, though, has not necessarily been warmly accepted by the main Mars 2020 mission.

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