NASA Sending Tiny Helicopter to Fly over Mars in 2021

16 May, 2018, 00:43 | Author: Enrique Watson
  • NASA depiction of the helicopter to travel on the Mars 2020 mission

The atmosphere of Mars is 100 times thinner than that of Earth and flying an autonomous chopper in that kind of air could prove extremely hard.

As for how feasible it is to build the drone, NASA's director of robotic Mars exploration Jim Watzin said that it has performed nearly 90 minutes of testing using a model within a Martian atmosphere test chamber.

Once the Mars rover makes it to a site that it suitable for takeoff, the Mars helicopter will detach and scientists at NASA will be able to send out commands that will allow the chopper to perform initial tests before taking to the skies.

By applying their findings to the Red Planet, they concluded that there could be almost 12,000 Olympic sized pools of organic matter on Mars that could represent traces of past life.

NASA's Mars Helicopter, a small autonomous rotorcraft, will explore Mars with the 2020 rover as a technology demonstration for heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.

"After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth", he said, "another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world". However, if it does work, helicopters may have a real future in interplanetary exploration.

They hope to programme the next life-searching mission to Mars, Mars 2020, to search for these dried up streams and inspect the sediment for traces of fatty acids.

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"The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet", said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL.

In addition to packing in a huge amount of power into a small and unassuming body, the Mars helicopter is equipped with solar cells that will allow it to charge itself with sunlight as well as a built-in hearing instrument to keep it running seamlessly on cold Martian nights. The technology demonstration has been many years in the making; it started in 2013 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

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. Instead, the machine is created to receive pre-programmed commands from Earth, then execute them on its own, always autonomously navigating the environment in real-time. NASA is planning as many as five flights over a 30-day test campaign. For starters the 'copter will climb to 3 meters, hover for 30 seconds, then descend.

The helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward endeavor.

If it fails, it will not impact the Mars 2020 mission. If it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers".

Thus far, all our explorations of Mars have taken place from space or on the surface with rovers. NASA's Launch Services Program, based at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.

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