Helicopters can be used for more than just flying to music festivals on a whim. A small helicopter is headed for Mars in what will be the first time such an aircraft will be used on another planet.
On Friday, NASA unveiled the remote-controlled Mars Helicopter that will be part of the 2020 mission to deliver a new rover to the Martian surface. The four-pound helicopter has the fuselage the size of a softball but will assist the space agency in conducting geological assessments, determining habitability, and, yes, looking for signs of ancient Martian life.
“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”
The tiny helicopter has twin counter-rotating blades that spin at almost 3,000 r.p.m., which is nearly 10 times faster than helicopter speeds on Earth. Once the rover reaches the Martian surface, the helicopter will be deployed and the rover will drive a safe distance from the mini chopper to relay commands. Controllers on Earth will then be able to command the first autonomous helicopter flight in Martian history.
Mars 2020 will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021. Before then, the Mars Helicopter will undergo a 30-day flight test campaign that will include five flights of incrementally farther flight distances up to a few hundred meters.
Like most historical firsts in aerospace, the Mars Helicopter is considered a “high-risk, high-reward” project. The Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted too much should the helicopter not work, but if NASA finds any success with the autonomous vehicle, it could greatly improve the agency’s ability to scout locations from a low-flying aircraft.