Skip to main content

Autonomous helicopter joins its rover buddy for Mars 2020 mission

Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team attach a thermal film to the exterior of the flight model of the Mars Helicopter. The image was taken on Feb. 1, 2019, inside the Space Simulator, a 25-foot-wide (7.62-meter-wide) vacuum chamber at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

NASA has a bold plan to send not only a rover but also a helicopter to Mars as part of its Mars 2020 mission. The autonomous Mars Helicopter, which NASA hopes will be the first aircraft to fly on another planet, successfully passed its flight tests and vacuum and deployment tests. Now, the helicopter has been attached to the Mars 2020 rover ready for its journey to the red planet.

The rover was secured onto a plate on the rover’s belly and covered by a shield to protect the delicate machine from rocks and other debris which will be kicked up during entry and landing on Mars. Once the craft has landed safely, the helicopter will emerge from behind its shield and be sent into the sky to explore the Jezero Crater region around the landing zone.

Related Videos

As the helicopter is a highly experimental piece of equipment, the engineers won’t be relying on it to collect any important scientific data. Instead, the Mars mission will act as a real-world test for the reliability of the helicopter, so NASA can see if it can move around the planet despite the thin atmosphere. If it’s successful, engineers can use what they learn to create next-generation helicopters for future missions.

“Our job is to prove that autonomous, controlled flight can be executed in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere,” MiMi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “Since our helicopter is designed as a flight test of experimental technology, it carries no science instruments. But if we prove powered flight on Mars can work, we look forward to the day when Mars helicopters can play an important role in future explorations of the Red Planet.”

The primary advantage of having a helicopter as well as a rover is that an airborne craft can explore locations that would be impossible to reach from the ground. This includes maneuvering around geographical features like cliffs, chasms, and caves to get a more detailed view of the Martian environment. In the future, helicopters could also carry scientific equipment to gather data from distant locations, or they could be used as scouts for investigating a region ahead of human or robot explorers.

For now, we’ll have to wait and see how the first helicopter for an extraterrestrial environment fares on its inaugural mission. The launch of the Mars 2020 mission is scheduled for July next year.

Editors' Recommendations

Mars helicopter Ingenuity powers through its 21st flight
In this illustration, NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet's surface as NASA's Perseverance rover (partially visible on the left) rolls away. Ingenuity arrived at Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, attached to the belly of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.

The Mars helicopter Ingenuity continues to perform beyond all expectations, having recently completed its 21st flight. The tiny NASA helicopter was originally designed for just five flights, but to the delight of all it has shaken off dust storms and handled seasonal changes, and it is continuing to operate and explore the red planet from the air.

NASA announced that the helicopter had aced its most recent flight yesterday, on Friday, March 11. "#MarsHelicopter can’t be stopped!" NASA JPL wrote on Twitter. "Ingenuity successfully completed its 21st flight on the Red Planet. The small rotorcraft traveled 370 meters at a speed of 3.85 meters per second and stayed aloft for 129.2 seconds."

Read more
How NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter shook off Martian dust to fly again
Mars helicopter

In January, a major dust storm on Mars prompted NASA to postpone the 19th flight of its Ingenuity helicopter.

When the dust settled, the team overseeing the mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California discovered a good deal of it had ended up on Ingenuity.

Read more
All the things the Perseverance rover has achieved in its first year on Mars
Perseverance snapped this view of a hill called “Santa Cruz” on April 29, 2021. About 20 inches (50 centimeters) across on average, the boulders in the foreground are among the type of rocks the rover team has named “Ch’ał” (the Navajo term for “frog” and pronounced “chesh”). Perseverance will return to the area next week or so.

It's been one year since NASA's Perseverance rover made its remarkable landing on Mars. Twelve months on, NASA has shared a roundup of all the achievements the rover has made in its quest to understand the Jezero crater, where it landed, and in its quest to search for evidence of ancient life.

One of the rover's major achievements was collecting samples of Mars rock, which proved tricky at first due to the rock being more crumbly than expected. However, despite the challenges the rover has managed to collect six samples so far which are sealed up in tubes and will be left on the planet's surface for a future mission to collect and eventually bring back to Earth for study.

Read more