NASA's Mars Helicopter Passes Crucial Testing With Flying Colors

Next year, NASA's Mars 2020 mission will launch a rover to the Red Planet aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. But this will not be the only vehicle in the payload.

The mission will also be carrying the space agency's prototype Mars Helicopter—a unique autonomous vehicle which has been designed to demonstrate the viability of controlled, powered flight on other planets. Now, NASA reports, the chopper has entered its final phase of testing after breezing through the latest round of checks.

Flying a helicopter in the thin Martian atmosphere—which has just 1 percent the density of the Earth's—poses a number of challenges for engineers. But in theory, if a helicopter is light enough and the blades spin fast enough, it should fly.

"To fly in the very thin atmosphere, a helicopter for Mars has to be very light and spin blades very fast," MiMi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told Newsweek. "For the 1.2-meter diameter rotor diameter employed for Mars Helicopter, it has to weigh less than 4 pounds and spin the blades in the range of 2,300-2,900 revolutions per minute.

"This is approximately 10 times faster than the helicopters operating on Earth," she said. "The as-built Mars Helicopter weighs less than 4 pounds while meeting the above diverse set of necessary capabilities."

The current design is the result of a long process that involved the construction of numerous prototypes. Now, researchers are hopeful that the Mars chopper will become the first heavier-than-air vehicle to fly on another planet when the mission reaches the Red Planet in 2021.

"Nobody's built a Mars Helicopter before, so we are continuously entering new territory," Aung said in a statement. "Our flight model—the actual vehicle that will travel to Mars—has recently passed several important tests."

The latest round of testing took place in Denver where the chopper team conducted checks of the vehicle's Delivery System, which is attached to the body of the Mars rover and will deploy the helicopter onto the surface of Mars.

Then, engineers exposed the helicopter and the delivery system to the kinds of vibrations that they will experience during launch and in-flight operations, as well as temperatures akin to those found in space—as low as -200 degrees Fahrenheit—to ensure that they were hardy enough to survive such conditions.

These checks followed on from the helicopter's final, successful flight test which took place this January inside a simulated Martian environment—which contained similar gravitational and atmospheric conditions to those found on the Red Planet.

"We expect to complete our final tests and refinements and deliver the helicopter to the High Bay 1 clean room for integration with the rover sometime this summer, but we will never really be done with testing the helicopter until we fly at Mars," Aung said.

A successful flight on Mars would pave the way for other helicopter designs to be used on future missions. Such vehicles would provide operators with numerous benefits when it comes to planetary exploration, being able to reach places that are inaccessible to human astronauts or rovers. They could also be used as scouts or to carry objects quickly over long distances.

The Mars 2020 mission will launch in July 2020 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and is scheduled to reach the Red Planet in February 20121.

This article was updated to include additional comments from MiMi Aung.

NASA Mars helicopter
This image of the flight model of NASA's Mars Helicopter was taken on Feb. 14, 2019, in a cleanroom at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The aluminum base plate, side posts, and crossbeam around the helicopter protect the helicopter's landing legs and the attachment points that will hold it to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech