NASA is dreaming big and then it quickly rises to the challenge (pun intended). Aside from the flying taxis it’s currently working on with Uber, the agency’s newest goal is to have a small aircraft fly on another world.
Luckily, the perfect opportunity to accomplish this historic feat is right around the corner. NASA’s upcoming mission to explore an alien planet is already set to fly a rover to Mars in 2020 and there’s just enough room for a small helicopter to tag along for the ride.
In what appears to be a new tradition of sending pioneering technology demonstrations on its high-profile interplanetary missions, the agency has just unveiled its plans to extend the payload of the Mars 2020 mission and send a helicopter to the Red Planet.
Dubbed the Mars Helicopter, or “marscopter,” the small aircraft will accompany the Mars 2020 rover in its exploration of the Martian landscape and be the first heavier-than-air vehicle made on Earth to fly on another planet.
“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said Jim Bridenstine, the agency’s new administrator.
“The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling,” he added.
So, what exactly is the Mars Helicopter? According to the agency, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, has been working on the “marscopter” project since August 2013. The four-year effort has produced an autonomous rotorcraft powered by lithium-ion batteries and fitted with two counter-rotating blades.
Tipping the scales at a little under four pounds (1.8 kilograms), the Mars Helicopter is quite small — its fuselage is no bigger than a softball, NASA pointed out.
However, its small dimensions will come in handy during its trip to the Red Planet, since the “marscopter” is set to get there attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.
But don’t let its cute stature fool you; this little fellow packs a lot of power and its twin blades are able to rotate 10 times faster than what we normally see here on Earth, reaching almost 3,000 revolutions per minute.
Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, explains why it was necessary to make the Mars-bound helicopter stronger and more powerful than anything that came before it.
“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up.”
The helicopter’s small weight will give it an added bonus and help the light aircraft navigate the thin Martian atmosphere, notes Aung.
“To make it fly at that [altitude], we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be,” she said.
The pioneering helicopter is designed to take things to another level and “prove that big things can come in small packages,” said NASA. Just like the twin MarCO CubeSats currently on their way to the Red Planet as part of the historic InSight mission, the “marscopter” is a trailblazer meant to demonstrate that the technology can be used in exploration missions.
Both projects are considered “high-risk, high-reward” technology demonstrations, meaning that neither of the two missions will be impacted if the CubeSats and the “marscopter” fail.
But JPL has made sure that the Mars Helicopter has everything it needs to brave the rough environment on the Red Planet. The “marscopter” has built-in capabilities to ensure it can function autonomously, as well as solar cells to charge its batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it from freezing during the cold Martian nights.
Soon after being deployed on the Red Planet by the Mars 2020 rover, the small aircraft will make history with its first autonomous flight: a vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds.
“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,” said Aung.
“Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own,” she pointed out.
According to Bridenstine, the success of the “marscopter” may enable more ambitious missions in the future.
“The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”
The aircraft is expected to reach the Red Planet in February 2021, more than half a year after its July 2020 launch. The Mars Helicopter and the Mars 2020 rover will be carried into space by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V, scheduled to take off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.