Mars Helicopter to fly on NASA’s next Rover Mission

Mars Helicopter to fly on NASA’s next Rover Mission

The Mars Helicopter will demonstrate the takeoffs and landings of a heavier-than-air spacecraft on another planet for the first time ever.

NASA is criticized at times for being too conservative in their approach but the latest announcement from them is receiving quite a lot of praise from all ends. They have decided that a helicopter will accompany the Mars 2020 Rover Mission. The launch of this mission is expected in July next year. According to the statements of the officials, counter-rotating blades are attached to a flying drone which will have a light-weight carbon-fiber fuselage and onboard autonomy. The purpose of sending this helicopter, to the red planet, is to demonstrate the viability and potential of ‘heavier-than-air vehicles’ on another planet of our solar system. The delight of the space agency was summed up by Jim Bridenstine, the Administrator of NASA, as he said,

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

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of NASA began this project in August 2013. At that time, it was thought of as a technology development project but now it has much bigger tasks to fulfill. All the efforts of researchers have led to a 1.8 kilograms heavy Mars helicopter that is expected to hit the Martian surface next year. Some favorable results from the testing ground and a financial boost in form of a new NASA budget have allowed the team of researchers to finish the job before July 2020.

In order to keep its size feasible, a lot of work was done on its design. The counter-rotating blades can rotate at an extreme rate (3,000 rpm) while its fuselage has been kept incredibly small and it is almost of the size of a softball. Thomas Zurbuchen, an Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, bragged about the significance of this achievement by saying,

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

The Mars Helicopter will be operated autonomously just like a drone on the Earth. Mimi Aung, the Project Manager at JPL, acknowledged this and explained how they will communicate with this revolutionary invention. She told the world that it is an unmanned mission and the fact that we will be several light years away, direct control of the mission is impossible. For these reasons, they have incorporated the helicopter with the abilities to receive a set of commands and carry out the mission on its own. It has a heating mechanism which will keep it warm as the temperature can drop significantly on Mars. It is also equipped with solar cells so that it could charge its Lithium-ion batteries.

The highest recorded flight of a helicopter on Earth is at an altitude of 40,000 feet. As we know that the atmosphere of Mars is very light and accounts for only 1% of the Earth’s atmosphere, the helicopter will experience the effects 100,000 feet up in the Earth’s atmosphere on the Martian surface. In these circumstances, special attention was needed for designing this helicopter. Aung explained this to the world as she said,

To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.”  

 A suitable location will be found for deploying the helicopter once the rover has reached the Martian atmosphere. Commands will be dispatched, through controllers, to deploy the helicopter on its four landing legs. After that, the rover will drive to a safe distance from where it will observe the flights of the helicopter and will relay the necessary commands. Minimizing the risk of collision between the rover and the helicopter during its flights is an extremely important factor and that’s why Aung has gone for a mutual agreement for this. She explained that by saying,

We’ve come to an agreement where everybody is comfortable at a range of 100 meters (330 feet) or so.

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