A 'Mars Helicopter' Will Fly on the Red Planet When NASA Sends Its Next Rover
We have rovers on Mars' surface, and orbiters like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter floating around the planet, but we don't have anything flying around the surface of Mars right now.
That will change in 2020 once NASA sends an autonomous flying "rotorcraft" to Mars to go exploring where no rover can check out on foot (or on wheels), which is naturally named the Mars Helicopter. The tiny, 4 pound (1.8 kilogram) helicopter will be attached to the upcoming Mars 2020 rover when it's launched to Mars in two years, and will then be deployed to the Martian skies once the 2020 rover lands.
The helicopter has been in development since 2013, and has been considered as a potential candidate to launch to Mars, but it's finally received official confirmation that it will ride in the "belly panel" of Mars 2020 until the rover touches down. The announcement just came today from NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former congressman who was recently appointed to the position without having any background in science.
Despite its small stature, the Mars Helicopter will be well-equipped to fly around Mars: solar cells for charging its lithium-ion batteries, a heater to keep it from freezing during Martian nights, and rotating blades capable of spinning at 3,000 rpm, which is 10 times the rate of a normal sized Earth helicopter.
That extra boost is necessary, because most Earth helicopters would be completely unable to travel in Mars' thin atmosphere. Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained it this way in an official press release from the space agency:
Once Mars 2020 arrives, the plan is to find a suitable spot for deployment, and then release the Mars Helicopter from the rover and set it loose on the planet (after tons of tests and ensuring the batteries are charged, of course). Since Mars can be anywhere from 4 to 24 lightminutes away from Earth depending on its location, real time controls are impossible.
This is why the Mars Helicopter will be running autonomous programs, to move around on its own after NASA sends it basic instructions.
Currently, the Mars Helicopter is more of an experiment than a mission. While Mars 2020 will specifically be studying Mars' habitability, looking for potential signs of life, and taking geological samples to send back to Earth, the Mars Helicopter just needs to fly around and not crash.
If the helicopter succeeds, it means the Red Planet is likely to get even more drones in the future.