NASA’s Mars helicopter is ready for launch

NASA’s Mars Helicopter and its cruise stage undergo functional testing in the airlock inside Kennedy Space Center’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility on March 10, 2020. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

NASA’s next Mars rover, recently dubbed Perseverance, is currently undergoing launch preparations at its launch site, the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. To that end, a key piece of hardware — the Mars helicopter — was just tested for the last time on Earth.

Weighing in at just under 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms), the helicopter’s fuselage is about the same size as a softball, and its dual blades will slice through the tenuous Martian atmosphere, rotating at nearly 3,000 rpm — roughly ten times that of its terrestrial counterparts.

The small rotorcraft, which will soon be attached to the rover’s belly, is designed to demonstrate if this technology can be used off-world. (A similar type of craft is scheduled to explore Titan, Saturn’s largest moon in the next decade.)

NASA’s Mars Helicopter will be the first aircraft to fly on another planet. The solar-powered dual-rotor craft will remain affixed to the rover after landing. Once mission managers can find an acceptable area to deploy the craft, they will begin to conduct test flights.

The helicopter will complete up to five flights over 30 days, each a little further away than the last. For its first flight, the helicopter will climb to 10 feet (3 meters) and hover for about 30 seconds.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate said about the craft. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

As part of its prelaunch testing, the craft was positioned inside an airlock, and its rotors spun up to 50 RPMs. The test proved the craft functioned as expected and it will soon be attached to its rover counterpart. This final test marked the last time the rotor blades will spin until the rover reaches the Martian surface.

The Mars 2020 rover now has an offical name: Perseverance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But before the helicopter can help us see Mars in a whole new way, it has to launch. To do so, it will hitch a ride to the red planet attached to the Mars Perseverance rover. The duo is scheduled to launch sometime in July atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

While the helicopter acts as a scout, Perseverance will search for signs of life on the red planet. It will also help scientists characterize the planet’s climate and geology, and ultimately collect samples for future return to Earth. Some of its on board instruments will test out technologies that will help pave the way for eventual human missions to Mars.

Graphic detailing the sample return process. Credit: ESA

NASA is working with the European Space Agency (ESA)to develop a plan on how best to return the Martian samples to Earth. Sample-return missions are estimated for the mid-2020s. ESA was also working with the Russian Space Agency to send its over rover to Mars, but unfortunately, delays in parachute testing coupled with the coronavirus outbreak, has sidelined that mission until 2022.

As of now, NASA does not foresee any delays to the Perseverance Mars mission. The agency is taking steps to keep its workers safe while also prioritizing this mission as well as any crewed missions to the space station. If all goes as planned, the rover (and helicopter) will arrive on the red planet in February 2021.

Amy Thompson: I write about space, science, and future tech.
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