NASA to fly helicopter on the 'red planet': 2020 mission

Enlarge ImageA Mars Helicopter prototype undergoes some testing on Earth.                  Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser  CNET

"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", Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, says in a statement.

The remote-controlled helicopter contains solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it warm during frosty nights.

In a press release, NASA said the Mars Helicopter is "considered a high-risk, high-reward project". The rover will then drive 50 to 100 metres away - close enough to stay in radio contact, far enough to not be endangered by any mishaps. Then it will take its very first autonomous flight in Mars and make history.

NASA now has two cars roaming Mars - the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. "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.

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

The rotor craft weighs in at only 1.8 kilograms, and it will fly to Mars attached to the underbelly of the rover.

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. Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at nearly 3,000 rpm - about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.


Traveling at the speed of light, it'll still take several minutes for any commands sent from Earth to reach the helicopter, so the flying rover will have to be at least partially autonomous as it provides scientists and other autonomous vehicles with the first long-term bird's-eye view of the planet.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", said Zurbuchen.

The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project, according to NASA: If the helicopter fails, it won't affect the rest of the Mars 2020 rover's mission, but if it succeeds, the agency will have a powerful new tool to survey the planet and access now unreachable locations.

"I am not an advocate for the helicopter and I don't believe the Mars 2020 project has been an advocate for the helicopter", he added.

The helicopter will have a relatively short mission, about 30 days in total.

NASA is working toward a future when humans will walk on the surface of Mars. "All the decisions that are being made have to honor that".

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