NASA to make aviation history with UAV mission on Mars

Federico Mansilla
May 17, 2018

It was coupled with the NASA's Insight Lander and was launched on May 05, 2018. "The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling". They are, instead, intended as a kind of proof-of-concept for future missions to Mars.

In over five decades of robotic exploration, NASA has sent orbiters, landers, rovers and even Cubesats to Mars. Once at the Mars, the shuttle is scheduled for the health check-up before the mission is called off.

The Mars Helicopter began as a technology development program of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in August of 2013.

Rather than building and launching bulky satellites into space, these small, cheaper spacecraft can accompany missions to land on other planets and moons, making hugely expensive space exploration considerably more affordable.

The result of the team's four years of design, testing and redesign weighs in at just under four pounds.

The helicopter will launch on Mars 2020, with an expected arrival on the red planet in February 2021.

Its twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at nearly 3,000 rpm - about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth. "After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world". A JPL representative told me that the cameras were really only included to make sure the antenna deployed properly.

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Building a helicopter able to fly on Mars involved some clever engineering. The helicopter will ride to Mars attached to the rover's belly pan.

"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.

Even with all the necessary components in place to get the helicopter to lift into the air on Mars, the team also had to consider the need for - and weight of - autonomous capabilities.

NASA will conduct a full 30-day flight test campaign that includes five flights of incrementally farther flight distances and longer durations over a period of time. Eventually, that will expand to farther distances, at most a few hundred meters, with trips lasting as much as 90 seconds. It will demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on Mars.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", Zurbuchen said.

So why would we need a helicopter on Mars?

NASA describes the fuselage as being "about the size of a softball", with counter-rotating twin blades, lithium-ion batteries and solar cells to charge them, and a mechanism to heat the machine during cold Mars nights.

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