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NASA is sending a tiny robot helicopter to Mars

15 May 2018

NASA announced that it will send the first ever Mars Helicopter along with the Mars 2020 rover.

In development at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) since 2013, the helicopter will be attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover and deployed in a suitable location once the rover touches down. For power, the vehicle packs two counter-rotating blades that will whirl 3,000 times a minute - 10 times the rate of a standard Earth-based helicopter - and enable a seamless flight.

"The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet [12,000 meters]", MiMi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, said in the statement.

The miniature aircraft will spin its rotors at about ten times the speed of a terrestrial one, due to the extremely low density of Mars' atmosphere - only about one percent of Earth's. Therefore, designers "had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be". NASA has also equipped the helicopter with solar cells for charging itself with sunlight and an inbuilt-heating mechanism to keep its instruments up and running on cold Martian nights.

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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", Aung stated while stressing on the importance of autonomy for the upcoming Mars helicopter launch. If all goes according to plan, the craft will make four more flights over the course of a 30-day test campaign, each progressively longer and more complex than the first. The first flight could see the Mars Helicopter fly up to 10 feet and hover there for around 30 seconds.

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

If a child sees the Curiosity rover on Mars and hears how slow its progress is over the planet, they might be thinking a somewhat obvious question: why don't we just send a helicopter there?

But if this endeavor truly takes off (sorry) it could add a valuable and revealing new dimension to space exploration missions down the road.

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NASA describes the Mars Helicopter as a high-risk, high-reward project. The Mars helicopter is now set to be attached to the belly of the 2020 Mars rover - adding extra capabilities to the successor of the massively successful Curiosity rover.

The launch of the Mars helicopter will help make up for sme of the drawbacks of heavier-than-air vehicles as we take steps to further explore the Red Planet.

For example: the Red Planet's particularly-weak atmosphere and the communication delay between ground control here on Earth and the rover.

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NASA is sending a tiny robot helicopter to Mars