An administrator at NASA, Jim Bridenstine, recently posted a concept clip of the drone on Twitter. The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. If this little helicopter works as intended, it will set the stage for future, more complex rotorcrafts created to act as scouts that can explore and map regions of Mars where scientists can't even dream to send a rover. The still-unnamed Mars helicopter will be the first heavier-than-air craft to fly on another planet.
The helicopter is being developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. It took four years of testing and tweaking to make the first prototype of the Mars-bound helicopter.
The drone itself weighs 1.8kg (just under 4lbs) while the dual, counter-rotating blades will be spinning at 3000RPM, around 10x faster than a regular helicopter. However, it's no secret that these rovers are not the most agile of tools nor are they the easiest to maneuver through the rocky terrains of Mars.
The Martian helicopter also features another innovation: it's powered by solar cells that charge lithium batteries.
That said, it is also worth noting that NASA has said if the flight demonstration is not successful, there won't be any effect on how the next Mars rover goes about its job. Now, for the first time, NASA wants to send a helicopter to Mars, which is meant to fly in very rarefied Martian atmosphere.
"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". NASA has tested the helicopter prototype in a Mars-like atmosphere, proving that it will be able to take flight on the red planet.
"We don't have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time", said Aung. 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.
The helicopter will attempt up to five flights, going farther and operating for longer each time - up to a few hundred meters and 90 seconds, officials said. Its first flight is meant to be short: just a 10-foot climb for 30 seconds before returning to the ground.
"Though the agency already has an orbiter lurking in space, it is way high up". The agency said in their statement if the technology demonstration doesn't work, the Mars 2020 mission won't be impacted - but if it does, "helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground level".
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? "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve".
Mars 2020 is slated to launch in July of that year on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and the mission should arrive at Mars in February 2021.
The rover will conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers. If the program works as NASA expects, the agency would have a whole new way to explore the Martian surface.