Thursday, 13 December, 2018

In an interplanetary first, NASA to fly remote-controlled helicopter on Mars

Enlarge ImageA Mars Helicopter prototype undergoes some testing on Earth.                  Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser  CNET Enlarge ImageA Mars Helicopter prototype undergoes some testing on Earth. Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser CNET
Theresa Hayes | 12 May, 2018, 05:24

The Mars 2020 mission, slated to launch in July 2020, is a rover created to look for signs of past or present life on the Red Planet.

"The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling", NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. After that, however, the helicopter will be on its own, flying autonomously.

The Mars Helicopter is being envisioned as a major advancement for future exploration of the planet, providing a new way of exploring areas of the Mars surface that are not easily accessible by land. "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", Culberson said.

That is part of the reason why Nasa is calling the Mars helicopter a "high risk" project.

The development on the Mars helicopter began almost five years ago at NASA's jet propulsion laboratory in California.

Known simply as "The Mars Helicopter", the device weighs less than four pounds (1.8 kilograms), and its main body section, or fuselage, is about the size of a softball. It has twin rotors that will spin at about 3,000 rotations per minute, which is 10 times faster than Earth helicopters.

When the Mars 2020 mission sends a rover to the Red Planet, there will also be a helicopter sent with it to fly around Mars and take photos.

"After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world", he said.

One such vehicle, the Spirit rover, got stuck in a patch of sand in 2009, where it eventually ran out of power and shut down. The Martian atmosphere is quite thin - just about 1 percent of Earth's - so flying in such low air density is a challenge. Once there, it will use solar cells to charge its batteries and operate a built-in heater to combat frigid nighttime temperatures.

The objective of the Mars Helicopter will be to fly around the Red Planet and to take photographs from a bird's-eye view.

The helicopter has been in development since 2013, and has been considered as a potential candidate to launch to Mars, but it's finally received official confirmation that it will ride in the "belly panel" of Mars 2020 until the rover touches down.

Is it insane to think we can fly a helicopter on another planet? "When our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it's already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up". If successful, it would be the first time humanity has deployed a helicopter on another planet. After placing the helicopter on the ground, the rover will be directed to drive to a safe distance to communicate signals. After its batteries are charged and a myriad of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight into history.

Up to five flights are planned over the 30-day test campaign, starting with a flight where the helicopter will ascent to an altitude of three meters and hover for 30 seconds.

The "marscopter" will be one of the components of the Mars survey mission scheduled to blast off in July 2020, the U.S. space agency announced on Friday.