NASA will send a tiny drone helicopter to fly through the Martian skies

Drone helicopter testing on Mars 2020 rover mission could have huge payback

After landing several miniature dune buggies on Mars to cruise around the surface of the planet, NASA has decided it wants a birds-eye view next time. The Mars Helicopter, a tiny remote-control dual-rotor drone, will make the trip to the red planet stowed in the belly pan of the Mars 2020 Rover.

Once on the surface, the six-wheeled rover will deploy the small chopper in a suitable location, allowing it to charge its batteries and run through a variety of pre-flight tests before making history in the thin Martian atmosphere.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers. We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit,” said Thomas Zurbuchen of NASA in an announcement. “With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

The spindly Mars Helicopter, which has been in development since 2013, has a box-like fuselage about the size of a softball and weighs approximately four pounds. Solar cells will charge the tiny drone during the day, and an internal heater will help it endure the cold Martian nights. Its counter-rotating blades will spin at almost 3,000 rpm, about 10 times faster than a similar craft here on Earth.

“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 up,” said Mimi Aung of JPL. “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.”

Once the copter is ready to go, a 30-day test flight campaign will commence, beginning with a simple hover in place and leading to more extensive reconnaissance missions lasting as long as 90 seconds. “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. “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.”

The Mars 2020 mission, scheduled for launch aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in July 2020, is expected to reach the red planet in February 2021. As cool as the mini chopper is, it’s not a crucial component of the mission.

Viewed as a technology demonstration on its own, the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. Within the context of the greater mission, however, the risk/reward balance shifts. If the helicopter test is a bust, the overall Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted. If it does work, however, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel.

Successful tests would open the door to more aerial observation and exploration during future missions, however. “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,” said Zurbuchen.

Updated May 13 with expanded mission risk/reward context.

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