NASA sending helicopter to Mars, aiming for an aviation first

NASA's Mars Helicopter a small autonomous rotorcraft which will travel with the agency's Mars 2020 rover currently scheduled to launch in July 2020 to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet

To rise into the Mars' thin atmosphere, the helicopter's two counter-rotating blades will turn at almost 3,000 revolutions per minute, or more than 10 times as fast as a helicopter's blades on Earth, NASA says.

If a child sees the Curiosity rover on Mars and hears how slow its progress is over the planet, they might be thinking a somewhat obvious question: why don't we just send a helicopter there? "The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling".

When the rover arrives at Mars in February 2021, it'll perform scouting missions to look for ideal landing zones on the surface, as well as scan the planet for signs of life, hazards that might matter to the future astronauts who finally venture to Mars.

However, reality is not that simple as unlike Earth's atmosphere, the Martian atmosphere is 100 times thinner which poses enormous challenges for a helicopter.

The Mars helicopter is capable of whirling 3000 whirls per minute which is roughly 10 times the rate of helicopters we use regularly here in Earth - ensuring a seamless flight despite the massively different conditions on Mars when compared to flight launches on our own planet.

Solar cells will help the Mars Helicopter charge its lithium-ion batteries, and it's equipped with a heating mechanism to survive frigid Martian nights.

A small, autonomous helicopter could soon soar above the rusty rocks of Mars. "The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth".

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As a white van with heavily tinted windows attempted to pass by, the crowd surrounded the vehicle and demanded it be opened so they could see who was inside.

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"The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet [12,000 meters]", MiMi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, said in the statement. The rover then will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands.

On the first test flight, NASA intends to have the helicopter climb 10 feet into the air and hover for 30 seconds. The technology demonstration has been many years in the making; it started in 2013 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The new Rover, which the Americans hope to build for 1.5 years and run on the Red planet in the summer of 2020, will collect samples of soil and stones, tightly pack them into capsules and leave on the surface along the way. "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 in the statement.

"To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinise everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be".

Because Earth will be several light minutes away, "there is no way to joystick this mission in real time", Aung said.

NASA's planned a "30-day flight test campaign" comprising five flights. The space agency plans to do it as part of its next Mars mission. If the program works as NASA expects, the agency would have a whole new way to explore the Martian surface.

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