NASA is preparing to send a helicopter to Mars as its first heavier-than-air vehicle flight over the red planet.
The Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency’s Mars 2020 rover mission, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.
“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine last month. “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.”
Bridenstine recently said the helicopter will fly attached to a rover on a mission known for now as Mars 2020.
Reverberating Bridenstine’s appreciation, U.S. Rep. John Culberson of Texas explained the impact of American firsts on the future of exploration and discovery.
“It’s fitting that the United States of America is the first nation in history to fly the first heavier-than-air craft on another world,” Culberson said. “This exciting and visionary achievement will inspire young people all over the United States to become scientists and engineers, paving the way for even greater discoveries in the future.
Engineers believe they have found a way to fly a helicopter through the impossible thin atmosphere on Mars, which is comparable to an altitude of 100,000 feet on Earth.
The aircraft has two counter-rotating blades that spin 3,000 times a minute, 10 times faster than helicopters on Earth.
“If we want to get as much science as we can, as fast as we can, we need to get really good at using robots,” Jim Bridenstine said.
Started in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Mars Helicopter has initiatives to prove it was a feasible aircraft towards achieving larger missions. The result of the team’s four years of design, testing, and redesign weighs approximately four pounds (1.8 kilograms). Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rpm – about 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,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington. “After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and a controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world.”