NASA’s Mars Helicopter is ready for the Red Planet after successful flight tests

With the planned launch date just 16 months away, excitement is growing among space fans looking forward to the Mars 2020 mission.

After announcing the successful debut test drive of the Mars 2020 rover last week, NASA followed up on Thursday, March 28, with news of the very first flight trials of the actual Mars Helicopter that will accompany the rover on its journey to the Red Planet next year.

“The next time we fly, we fly on Mars,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where the test flights took place.

The autonomous flying machine will help NASA to find interesting research sites on Mars, and also provide data for mapping routes for future rovers on the Martian surface.

Its performance on the planet will also help NASA to refine the aircraft’s design so that it can create more capable helicopters for Mars and other planetary missions.

The diminutive helicopter tips the scales at just 4 pounds (1.8 kg) and features four rotors, each one a little over a meter long. At its core is a small, box-like fuselage, and it’s here where you’ll find the machine’s downward-facing camera. Solar cells and batteries take care of the helicopter’s power needs, while an internal heater should help it cope with the planet’s dramatic drop in temperature at night.

The recent Mars Helicopter test took place inside JPL’s Space Simulator, a 25-foot-wide (7.62-meter-wide) vacuum chamber. To create conditions similar to those found on Mars, the team prepared the chamber by sucking out all the nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases from the air inside, before replacing it with carbon dioxide, the chief ingredient of Mars’ atmosphere.

It also had to find a way to simulate the weaker gravity found on Mars.

“To truly simulate flying on Mars we have to take away two-thirds of Earth’s gravity, because Mars’ gravity is that much weaker,” said Teddy Tzanetos, test conductor for the Mars Helicopter at JPL.

It was able to achieve this with the creation of a so-called “gravity offload system” — a motorized lanyard attached to the top of the helicopter to provide an uninterrupted tug equivalent to two-thirds of Earth’s gravity.

Two test flights took place, each one taking the helicopter to an altitude of a mere 2 inches, which was enough for the team to confirm that it could fly autonomously in a thin, Mars-like atmosphere.

The Mars Helicopter will launch with the rover on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in July next year and is expected to reach the distant planet in February 2021.

Commenting on its high-tech aircraft last year, NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen said: “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

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