Exploration of Mars will continue when NASA’s next Mars rover touches down on the red planet in 2020. Scheduled to work with the rover is a miniature helicopter that will be used to help collect data about Earth’s closest neighbor.
NASA announced last year that it would send the tiny aircraft to Mars, but only recently has the agency revealed the vehicle’s design.
It is a small chopper — about the size of a softball — and it will reportedly weigh just under four pounds. The rotor blades on the helicopter will spin at 3,000 rpm, which is about 10 times faster than blades on helicopters on Earth, the space agency reported.
While engineers have been working on the helicopter’s conception since 2013, the project was not approved for the next Mars mission until May of 2018.
It was a challenge to construct a craft that would be able to survive bitterly cold temperatures, operate in a thin atmosphere, and work on its own for most of the time, but engineers believe they have finally created the first remote-operated flight vehicle for Mars.
To solve the problem of communication delays, the helicopter will have built-in systems to safely land should it encounter any immediate trouble in the form of wind or other obstacles. While engineers do not expect the helicopter to encounter any other flying objects, it must also be able to make its own decisions if it encounters a technical glitch or something unexpected. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, along with experts at the Langley Research Center in Virginia and Ames Research Center, are in the final testing rounds for the small craft.
“When a vehicle goes to Mars it’s going to have to operate autonomously. When it gets there the whole control system and everything that makes it fly must be tuned so that it can fly on its own, which this final round of testing addressed,” Susan Gorton, NASA’s manager for the Revolutionary Vertical Lift Technology said.
The plan for the solar-powered helicopter is fairly straightforward: to take up to five short flights lasting 90 seconds, with each flight going a little bit farther than the flight before. A small camera attached to the helicopter will also take pictures of the Martian surface and send them back to Earth. The mission is expected to last only 30 days.
If things go as planned, there could be future missions to the red planet equipped with similar aircraft, which would allow for scientific research that goes above and beyond the rovers they arrive on. Should Martian skies become crowded with miniature helicopters, NASA said that they can implement part of a drone-related traffic management system they use on Earth on Mars.