NASA Mars Helicopter. Image courtesy of NASA
NASA will send a helicopter to fly on NASA’s next red planet rover mission in July 2020. The "Mars Helicopter," as NASA calls it, is a small autonomous rotorcraft that will demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the red planet.
The project started in August 2013 as a technology development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Over the course of four years of design, testing and redesign, the team assembled a four-pound rotorcraft.
The helicopter contains built-in capabilities for operation on Mars. It includes solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights. It will get to Mars by attaching to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.
Once the rover is on the planet’s surface, a suitable location will be found to deploy the helicopter down from the vehicle and place it onto the ground. The rover then will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands. After its batteries are charged and a myriad of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the helicopter to take its first autonomous flight into history.
The full 30-day flight-test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally farther flight distances up to a few hundred meters and longer durations as long as 90 seconds. On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (three meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds.
Since it is a technology demonstration, the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. If it does not work, the Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted. In the event it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel.
Mars 2020 is expected to reach Mars in February 2021 and will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.