Skip to main content

NASA’s Mars helicopter spins blades for last time before launch

NASA is making the final preparations for its Mars 2020 mission, set for launch in July.

The space agency recently reported the completion of important testing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, close to where the rocket and spacecraft carrying the recently named Perseverance rover will lift off in three months’ time.

NASA Mars Helicopter Technology Demonstration

The testing included the last spin of NASA’s Mars Helicopter rotor blades, which will be heading to the Red Planet attached to Perseverance. In the trial, engineers rotated the blades at 50 revolutions per minute, far slower than the approximately 2,500 revolutions per minute that the blades will make during actual deployment.

There’s much excitement surrounding the Mars Helicopter as it’s set to become the very first aircraft to fly on another planet. The machine will help NASA to find potentially useful research sites on the Martian surface, and also gather data for mapping routes for future Mars rovers.

Mars 2020 helicopter
The Mars Helicopter in the lab. NASA

The helicopter (above) weighs just 4 pounds (1.8 kg) and is kept airborne by two pairs of 120-cm-long rotors, one mounted above the other. Solar cells and batteries take care of its power needs, while an internal heater will help it deal with the planet’s dramatic drop in temperature at night. Using the rover as a launch and landing pad, each flight will last around 90 seconds, during which time the helicopter will reach a height of around 16 feet.

The helicopter features a downward-facing 12-megapixel camera, with captured imagery beamed back to Earth via the rover.

To enable autonomous flight, the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) developed a vision-based navigation system that analyzes the camera images and combines the information with data from other instruments monitoring the helicopter’s position, velocity, and attitude.

Its first controlled flight took place in 2016 inside JPL’s own space simulator, a large vacuum chamber where the conditions of the Martian atmosphere are able to be replicated. Since then the helicopter’s design has been gradually refined in readiness for the upcoming space trip.

NASA has also been finalizing other parts of the mission ahead of launch.

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused the space agency to suspend work on its Space Launch System and Orion projects, but at the current time, the Mars Helicopter is still set to launch with the rover on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in July, reaching the distant planet in February 2021.

Editors' Recommendations

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
NASA marks a year since Mars drone’s historic first flight
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter.

NASA’s team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California is celebrating one year since its plucky Ingenuity helicopter became the first aircraft to achieve controlled, powered flight on another planet.

Ingenuity's maiden flight took place on April 19, 2021, and the team marked occasion by sharing a video showing that special moment 12 months ago when news came through that the drone-like aircraft had successfully performed its record-breaking first flight:

Read more
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter sets new flight records on Mars
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter.

NASA’s space helicopter has set two new flight records on Mars.

During what the mission team described as Ingenuity’s “most ambitious flight” among its 25 trips to date, the 4-pound, 19-inch-high helicopter flew a distance of 2,324.2 feet (708.4 meters), smashing its previous record of 2,072.8 feet (631.8 meters) by 251.4 feet (76.6 meters).

Read more
NASA’s Mars helicopter will fly furthest yet in next flight
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter.

In the year since NASA’s Mars helicopter first hovered above the martian surface to become the only aircraft to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet, Ingenuity has taken 23 additional flights.

Now the mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is prepping the 4-pound, 19-inch-high helicopter for a record-breaking flight of 704 meters, a distance that will smash its current record by 77 meters.

Read more