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NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars in its next rover mission this month

This low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin" on lower Mount Sharp. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
July 08, 2020

NASA will send a helicopter to Mars as part of the Mars Perseverance rover mission, scheduled to launch by August 2020.

According to NASA, the Mars Helicopter is a small, autonomous rotorcraft meant to “demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.”

“Exploring the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars Helicopter exemplified 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 controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world.”

The helicopter, weighing just under four pounds, has a fuselage that is roughly the size of a football. It also has built-in capabilities needed to operate on Mars, including solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to stay warm during cold Martian nights. It’s twin blades rotate counterclockwise at nearly 3,000 rpm.

The belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover will carry the helicopter to roughly 72 million miles to Mars where a safe location will be found to deploy the history-making vehicle. Once its batteries are charged and a series of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the helicopter to take it’s first autonomous flight.

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“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 Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.”

The Mars Helicopter is being considered a “high-risk, high-reward” project. The Mars 2020 rover mission will not be impacted if the helicopter does not work; but if it does work, the helicopter has the potential to become a low-flying scout that would have access to locations otherwise inaccessible by ground rovers.

“NASA has a proud history of firsts. The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”

The Mars 2020 rover mission will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.