NASA’s next rover mission is slated to launch in 2020 and the mission is expected to have the first helicopter to make interplanetary travel. NASA’s next Mars rover will be equipped with a small, autonomous helicopter to survey the landscape of the Red Planet, but several challenges make using a regular quadcopter impossible.
Development of the Mars Helicopter began in 2013 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. NASA expects to include the Mars Helicopter on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July 2020. The Mars rover and helicopter should arrive on the Red Planet in February 2021.
“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said in a statement. “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.”
The six-wheeled rover will conduct geological assessments, search for natural resources, habitable environments, and any signs of ancient Martian life. The new rover is equipped with 23 cameras, a microphone, and a drill to collect samples of rock and soil. The helicopter weighs just under four pounds and is the size of a softball. The drone will utilize solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries. There is also a heating mechanism to make sure it doesn’t freeze on frigid Martian nights.
Flying a helicopter on Mars is a much more difficult task than you would imagine. You might think that a helicopter would be easier to fly on Mars because the surface gravity on Mars is only about 38% of the surface gravity on Earth. However, the thin atmosphere of Mars poses challenges to flying helicopters. The helicopter’s twin rotors will need to whirl at 3,000 rpm, about 10 times the rate of a helicopter’s blades on Earth, to fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere. That means flight will drain the batteries very quickly and limit how far the Marscopter can explore.
“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 a statement. “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 [30,000 m] up. 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.”
The drone being 33.9 million miles from Earth also presents some logistical challenges. “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 said. “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.”