NASA has confirmed its upcoming Mars 2020 rover will carry a small robotic passenger. The agency has been working on a helicopter drone for use on Mars, and it now plans to include this vehicle with the 2020 rover. The still-unnamed Mars helicopter will be the first heavier-than-air craft to fly on another planet. In doing so, it will help the 2020 rover mission cover more ground and learn more about Mars.
Thus far, all our explorations of Mars have taken place from space or on the surface with rovers. Flying on Mars is challenging for several reasons. First of all, the atmosphere is only one percent the density of Earth’s. That makes fixed-wing aircraft impractical, and helicopters need to have low mass and comparatively large and fast-spinning blades. NASA has tested the helicopter prototype in a Mars-like atmosphere, proving that it will be able to take flight on the red planet. However, flying on Mars is inherently more dangerous than rolling around. If the helicopter tips over during landing or falls out of the sky, it won’t be possible to repair it from millions of miles away.
The Mars helicopter will ride to the planet attached to the underside of the 2020 rover. After the wheeled vehicle is on the planet’s surface, NASA will find a suitable location to deploy the helicopter. The rover will lower the helicopter onto the ground, allowing it to deploy and begin charging with its solar panels. When it’s ready to take flight, the aircraft will need to operate autonomously.
Mars is several light-minutes away, so it’s impossible to control the helicopter’s flight path or landing in real time. NASA will relay general commands to the rover, which communicates with the helicopter. On its first flight, the vehicle will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters) and remain there for 30 seconds before landing. Four additional tests will take place over the course of a month, some of which will take the helicopter hundreds of meters high for flights as long as 90 seconds.
NASA hopes to use the Mars helicopter to scout ahead for the 2020 rover. Since it too cannot be controlled in real time, having detailed data on the terrain will help NASA plot longer, safer courses for the rover. The helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward endeavor. If it crashes or doesn’t work as well as hoped, the 2020 rover will still operate normally. If it does work, NASA will be able to build on the design for future Mars missions.
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