Roving around Mars is so passe. So NASA is sending a helicopter to the red planet.
The aptly named Mars Helicopter will attempt to become the first vehicle to take flight on another planet.
"The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.
The craft, which looks more like a drone than a helicopter, has a fuselage the size of a softball, two sets of blades that rotate in opposite directions, solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and four skinny legs with spherical feet. The whole thing weighs in at less than 4 pounds.
Thanks to the thin Martian atmosphere, the helicopter's blades will encounter far less air than they would on Earth. In fact, to find conditions equivalent to those on Mars, you'd have to fly at 100,000 feet — about 60,000 feet higher than a helicopter has ever flown, said MiMi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.
"The atmosphere of Mars is only 1% that of Earth," Aung said in a statement. "To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything."
To get airborne, the four blades on the Mars Helicopter will make nearly 3,000 rotations per minute. That means they will spin about 10 times faster than a helicopter built for our skies.
NASA plans to fly the craft up to five times over a span of 30 days. For its maiden voyage, the goal is to hover 10 feet above the ground for about 30 seconds. If all goes well, its final flight will cover a distance of several football fields over a period of 90 seconds.
The helicopter won't fly to Mars alone. Instead, it will hitch a ride in the belly pan of JPL's next Martian rover, which is scheduled to launch in July 2020.
After their arrival the following February, the rover — known as Mars 2020 — will set the helicopter on the ground and drive a safe distance away. However, it will remain close enough to relay commands from Earth to the helicopter.
Engineers at JPL began working on the Mars Helicopter in 2013 and spent four years coming up with the final design. NASA is calling it a "high-risk, high-reward project" whose failure would not affect the primary Mars 2020 mission.
However, if it works, helicopters could become a crucial tool for exploring Mars in the future, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers," Zurbuchen said in a statement.
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