Published: Sat, May 12, 2018
Research | By Raquel Erickson

NASA adds a drone to its 2020 Mars rover

NASA adds a drone to its 2020 Mars rover

Developed by Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a flying machine held aloft by twin rotors will be taken to Mars in 2020 and become the first "heavier-than-air" craft to be flown on another world, NASA announced Friday.

Mars Helicopter weighs about 1.8 kilograms and has a cubical fuselage similar in size to a softball. During the flight demonstrations, the helicopter's twin, counter-rotating blades will cut through the Martian atmosphere at nearly 3,000 rpm-about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth. The views from a helicopter flying across Mars will also provide NASA with a stellar public relations tool as it seeks global support for sending humans to the planet in the 2030s or later. "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", Aung said.

Solar cells will charge the helicopter's lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism should keep it from freezing in the cold Martian nights.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has given the thumbs-up to putting a helicopter on Mars. It will fly as an attachment to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover. After placing the helicopter on the ground, the rover will be directed to drive to a safe distance to relay commands.

If the chopper fails to take flight on Mars, the rest of the mission will go on unaffected.

In a statement issued late May 11, the space agency said it will include the Mars Helicopter on the Mars 2020 rover mission, where it will perform a series of test flights over the course of a month.


NASA says that if successful, the Mars Helicopter could be a model for scouting on future Mars missions, able to access places the human-built rovers cannot reach.

This illustration shows what the Mars Helicopter might look like as it readies for takeoff. After that, it will begin to take autonomous flights. That would fill in some gaps between the rover's close-to-the-ground camera perspective and the long-distance view we get from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, in the statement.

As a technology demonstration, the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a "marscopter", we can only imagine what future missions will achieve".

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, and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021. The rover is created to carry out geological studies and ascertain the habitability of the Martian environment, NASA said.

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