When NASA launches its next rover to Mars, the vehicle will have a small helicopter along for the ride.
NASA announced that the space exploring company will be sending a small autonomous flying chopper – named the Mars Helicopter (how original) – with the upcoming Mars 2020 rover. The helicopter will attempt to fly through the Martian air to see if the vehicles can even levitate on Mars, where the atmosphere is 100 times thinner than that of Earth.
The design for the Mars Helicopter has been in the works for the last four years at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), but the space agency had yet to decide if it was actually going to send the vehicle to Mars.
NASA needed to determine if this technology was feasible and if the agency had enough money in its budget to include the copter. Now it seems that the space agency has decided that the copter idea might actually just work. If the Mars Helicopter does indeed fly, it will be able to capture a rare birds-eye-view of Mars with its two cameras, something that's never been done before. All this means that it will then be possible to send future flying vehicles to Mars to scout out locations that are hard to access.
The engineers at JPL have been working to get the weight and shape of the helicopter just right so that it can fly through the Mars air. The Mars Helicopter will need to fly at an atmosphere that is as thin as altitudes of 100,000 feet on Earth, according to NASA. So the robot has to be tiny and light: it weighs in at 1.8 kilograms on Earth and is about the size of a softball. The copter also sports twin blades that rotate 10 times faster than helicopter's here on our planet.
The plan is for the Mars Helicopter to hitch a ride with the Mars 2020 rover. Once the rover lands on the planet's surface, it will then find a good place to set down the copter, deploy it and then drive away. The helicopter will have to fly completely on its own. Since Earth is too far from Mars, it will take several minutes to send the helicopter commands. Ultimately, the copter will try to do five autonomous flights over a 30-day period; the trips will last up to 90 seconds.
The Mars 2020 rover is slated to launch on top of an Atlas V rocket, made by the United Launch Alliance, from Cape Canaveral, Florida in July 2020. The spacecraft will then land on Mars in February 2021.