It’s official now, NASA is sending a small autonomous helicopter to Mars. It’s supposed to help scout intriguing targets for research on Mars.
This is the first test of a heavier-than-air vehicle on another planet. Below, we have covered all interesting aspects of this Mars helicopter, that will answer all your questions.
What It Will Do?
The helicopter-like drones is planned to fly about 5 times during its 1 month testing period. NASA will evaluate whether this vehicle can fly safely, and offer better guidance and data to mission controllers. The information provided by the helicopter will be used to identify interesting targets, plan routes of the rover and avoid hazards.
The helicopter is 80 centimeters tall, and weighs 1.8 kilograms. Its fuselage (main body section of the aircraft) is about 4 inches in diameter.
It has a counter-rotating coaxial rotors about about 60 centimeters in radius. The blades can rotate at 3,000 rpm (revolutions per minute), which is 10x faster than the Earth-helicopter.
It will be powered by 200 Watt lithium-ion batteries (charged via solar energy), and a heating system will keep it warm in cold nights.
The payload includes a communication system to transfer/receive data from 2020 Mars rover, a solar tracker camera, terrain surveying system, and landing. It may also include visual odometry, altimeter (to determine altitude), gyroscope, and hazard detectors.
How High It Will Fly?
Image credit: NASA / JPL-CalTech
Today, turbine-engine helicopter can reach up to 25,000 feet on Earth. However, the Martian atmosphere is only 1 percent that of Earth. So, when vehicle reaches on Mars’ surface, it is already Earth equivalent of about hundred thousand feet up. To fly a machine at such thin atmosphere, engineers have to make it much more powerful while keeping its body as light as possible.
The helicopter-like drone is expected to fly for only 90 seconds per day, covering a distance of a few hundred meters daily. On the first flight, it will fly and hover 10 feet up for about half a minute.
The helicopter is expected to provide 10 times better resolution than orbital pictures. It features a display (or what NASA scientists say “bird’s eye view”) that’s not possible to cover with rover cameras.
Project Status and Budget
The project was started in 2013 at NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab). In mid 2016, scientists requested $15 million to keep the development process on track. In December 2017, the aircraft was tested in the Arctic, and in a simulated environment (same as Mars).
In March 2018, the mission received $23 million, and scientists announced that the vehicle can be launched with Mars 2020 rover mission.
Mars 2020 rover is planned to be launched on a ULA Atlas V rocket. It will reach the Red planet in February 2021.
Can NASA Control The Helicopter In Real-Time?
The helicopter will take its first flight after receiving command(s) from controllers on Earth. However, it’s not possible to joystick this project in real time because Mars is 12.5 light minutes away from Earth. It will still take about 14 minutes for the data to reach Mars from Earth.
The helicopter is equipped with an autonomous control system, that’s why it will fly on its own. After landing it will directly interact with the Mars rover.
It’s a High-Risk, High-Reward Mission
As a technology demonstration, the project is risky but could be extremely useful if everything goes according to the plan. However, the Mars 2020 rover mission will not face any critical issues if the helicopter doesn’t work.
If helicopter does work, most probably it will be used in future missions as a rover assistant and aerial drones to capture things that are unreachable by ground vehicles.