The helicopter is designed to demonstrate whether or not this type of technology is capable of being used off-world. (A similar type of craft is scheduled to explore Titan, Saturn’s largest moon in the coming decade.)
“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a news release. “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.”
What started as a development project, the Mars Helicopter quickly proved it was a shining example of how big things come in small packages.
Weighing in at just under 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms), the craft’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. (For comparison, that’s 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.)
“Exploring the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future,” Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate said in a news statement. “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.”
The helicopter is equipped with solar cells to charge its onboard lithium-ion batteries, as well as a heating mechanism to keep it warm during the frigid Martian nights. But before it can buzz around Mars, it has to get there.
The craft will hitch a ride to the red planet thanks to NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 rover. It will launch attached to the rover’s belly.
Soon after the rover lands on the planet’s surface, it will deploy the helicopter. The rover then drive a short distance away so the craft can take flight.
“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. 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 news release. “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.”
The Mars helicopter will carry out a 30-day flight test campaign, where it will complete as many as five flights, each a little further away than the last. For its first flight, the helicopter will climb to 10 feet (3 meters), hovering for about 30 seconds.
“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said Zurbuchen. “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.”