NASA Wants To Get A Helicopter To Fly Above Mars

NASA's Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, which will travel with the agency's Mars 2020 rover, is scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles NASA/JPL-Caltech, via REUTERS

NASA will send a helicopter to Mars to see whether it is possible to fly a craft that is heavier than air.

A small autonomous helicopter would be included as part of the Mars 2020 mission, the space agency said in a statement on its website.

Designers have spent four years making the chopper that weighs just 4lb, about the size of a softball. Equipped with solar cells to power it over a 30-day test campaign, its blades would spin three times quicker than a normal helicopter, or around 3,000 revolutions a minute so as to handle the planet's atmosphere, which is 100 times thinner than Earth's.

NASA Administrator Jim Brindenstine said: "The idea of a helicopter flying in the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars."

The aim is that the craft will carry out five flights, and would travel further each time, up to a few hundred meters for 90 seconds. If successful, it could give the agency a powerful new tool to examine the planet.

MiMi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, said in a statement: "To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.

"We don't have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time. Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own," she said.

Mars 2020 will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July that year and is expected to reach the planet in February 2021 where it will look at whether living on the Red Planet is viable.

Instruments aboard the Mars rover will collect rock and soil samples and encase them in sealed tubes to be left on the surface for potential return to Earth. Last month, the agency had to issue a statement that the unexpected fracture of a heat shield for the rover would cause a delay to the mission.