NASA Mars Helicopter Technology Demonstration

NASA plans autonomous helicopters to land on Mars in 2020

NASA plans autonomous helicopters to land on Mars in 2020

NASA considers the mission "a high-risk, high-reward project" and if it fails, it doesn't impact the rest of the rover's mission.

NASA's Insight Mars Lander just launched a mission to study the planet's interior, and in 2020, NASA will attempt to fly a tiny helicopter drone in the thin Martian atmosphere.

The craft will undergo a 30-day test campaign once it reaches the Red Planet to demonstrate the viability of travel above the Martian surface with a heavier-than-air craft.

"NASA has a proud history of firsts", NASA's administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said in a statement.

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After all, to them a helicopter is something which moves fast and low across the sky, so surely it would cover far more ground than a standard, wheeled rover?

"If we were to fly the helicopter as a tech demonstration on something like Mars 2020, we would envision a very small number of flights to prove the aerodynamic and handling characteristics, and the concept of operations, and that would be the end of the demonstration", Watzin said.

Started in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Mars Helicopter had to prove that big things could come in small packages.

Four years in the making, the NASA team finally decided that the autonomous helicopter can be sent to the Red Planet. For power, the vehicle packs two counter-rotating blades that will whirl 3,000 times a minute - 10 times the rate of a standard Earth-based helicopter - and enable a seamless flight.

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ESA is developing a mechanism of getting capsules to the surface of Mars on its orbit. However, if it does work, helicopters may have a real future in interplanetary exploration.

Now, there are several things about this news to unpack, including the part about there being no recorded instance of a flying vehicle being use on Mars other than the ones used to deliver the rover and consecutive supplied.

The atmosphere of Mars is 100 times thinner than that of Earth and flying an autonomous chopper in that kind of air could prove extremely hard.

That said, it is also worth noting that NASA has said if the flight demonstration is not successful, there won't be any effect on how the next Mars rover goes about its job.

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"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", Aung said. With each successive flight, the duration (90 seconds max) and distance covered will be increased (up to a few hundred meters). "On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds". "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve".

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