NASA is ready to send the first helicopter to Mars

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California has finally finished constructing the highly anticipated Mars helicopter and have attached it to the Mars 2020 rover. 

The Mars helicopter or formally known as the Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS), is a planned robotic helicopter that can potentially be used by astronomers to conduct thorough scouts over the Red Planet.

Particularly, it may be able to access tough to reach locations in Mars that traditional rovers can’t usually go to or simply help rovers by planing the best driving route.

For the meantime, NASA’s JPL scientists are mainly focused on the MHS as a technology demonstrator that will form the foundation on which more capable helicopters can be developed for aerial exploration of Mars and other planetary targets with similar atmospheres. Mars’ air is just 1% as dense as that of Earth at sea level.

”Our job is to prove that autonomous, controlled flight can be executed in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere,” Mars Helicopter project manager, of JPL, said in a statement.

“Since our helicopter is designed as a flight test of experimental technology, it carries no science instruments,” she added. “But if we prove powered flight on Mars can work, we look forward to the day when Mars helicopters can play an important role in future explorations of the Red Planet.”

Through this tech demonstration, NASA will assess whether this technology demonstrator can fly safely, over Martian atmospheres. This demonstration should also determine if a flying vehicle is ideal with learning better mapping and navigation for future mission controllers as well as identifying points of interest for the rover. 

The duo—the Mars Rover and MHS—will be deployed in 2021 from the planned Mars 2020 rover mission. They will be able to explore Mars from the air while the rover collects samples on the ground, NASA said.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency’s Mars 2020 rover, currently scheduled to launch on July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Furthermore, the duo is expected to touch down inside the Red Planet’s Jezero Crater, which hosted a river delta in the ancient past. 

Once on Mars, the rover will characterize the site’s geology, collect and cache samples for its future return to Earth and demonstrate gear that will generate oxygen from the carbon-dioxide-dominated Martian air, among other tasks.

Meanwhile, the solar-powered, 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) the helicopter will detach and begin its flight test where it is expected to be able to do up to five times during its 30-day testing. 

”With this joining of two great spacecraft, I can say definitively that all the pieces are in place for a historic mission of exploration,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C, said in a statement. “Together, Mars 2020 and the Mars Helicopter will help define the future of science and exploration of the Red Planet for decades to come.”

And if it flies successfully, it’ll be the first aircraft to fly on another planet, NASA said.

Other than the momentous milestone, if the helicopter soars, it’ll provide never-before-seen views of the Red Planet by taking aerial pictures of Martian cliffs, caves and craters that the land-bound rover can’t explore. 

However, if the helicopter fails to take flight, the rover can still gather essential data from the surface.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency’s Mars 2020 rover, currently scheduled to launch on July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “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.”

NASA also plans to launch another rotorcraft soon as well — Dragonfly, which will soar through the thick atmosphere of Saturn’s huge moon Titan. However, Dragonlfly will act more as a drone and make a number of ”hops” instead of the expected helicopter gliding in the air. The life-hunting Dragonfly is scheduled to lift off in 2026 and land on Titan’s icy surface in 2034. 

Mars 2020 will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The project was funded $23 million in March 2018, and it was announced on 11 May 2018.

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