NASA Is Sending a Space Helicopter to Mars for the First Time in History
For the first time in history, a space program plans to fly a helicopter on the surface of another planet: NASA has announced that it will be sending an autonomous rotocraft to Mars by the summer of 2020 as a new way to explore the planet's surface and to test the new technology.
The Mars Helicopter program began four years ago at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. The rotocraft does not physically resemble the kind of helicopter you're probably used to seeing hover above cities or blasting Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries."
NASA describes the fuselage as being "about the size of a softball," with counter-rotating twin blades, lithium-ion batteries and solar cells to charge them, and a mechanism to heat the machine during cold Mars nights.
Because of the difference in the atmosphere on Mars, the blades of the Mars Helicopter can ramp up to 3000rpm, which NASA says is 10 times the speed of a normal helicopter. Altogether, the machine weighs in at around 4 pounds and is designed to attach to and deploy from the underside of the Mars Rover.
"NASA has a proud history of firsts," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. "The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars."
"Exploring the Red Planet with NASA's Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future," added associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen. "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."
Over the course of 30 days, the Mars Helicopter will make a series of incrementally further flights.
If the tech fails, the mission will not be affected and all NASA will potentially lose is the money spent developing the helicopter. But if all goes to plan, it could be huge for the future of space exploration.
"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers," said Zurbuchen. "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."