NASA has revealed that it will be sending a helicopter to Mars on its next mission, due to arrive on the Red Planet in February 2021.
The Mars Helicopter will be sent along with the Mars 2020 rover, which will begin its seven-month journey with a launch on an Atlas V rocket in July 2020. It’s the first time an aircraft such as this will be sent to another world.
"NASA has a proud history of firsts," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. "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."
Ideas like this have been kicking around for a while. If it works, the helicopter could scout out areas of interest on Mars and cover much greater distance than rovers, which typically drive just a few tens of meters each day.
The helicopter will be small, weighing just 1.8 kilograms (4 pounds), with the body of the vehicle roughly the size of a softball. In order to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere, its twin counter-rotating blades will have to spin at about 3,000 rpm, 10 times faster than a helicopter on Earth.
When flying on Mars it will be the equivalent to flying at 30,000 meters (100,000 feet) on Earth. It will be equipped with solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a “heating mechanism” to keep itself warm during the Martian night.
It will be transported to the surface in the belly of the Mars 2020 rover, which is similar in design to the Curiosity rover that’s already on Mars. It will be deployed on the surface by the rover, which will then drive to a safe distance from which it can relay commands.
The distance of Mars from Earth means there is a communication delay of anywhere between four and 24 minutes between our two planets. So the helicopter will be autonomous, as it won’t be able to rely on a human pilot to fly it in real time.
In total it’s expected to fly on and off for 30 days, with each flight lasting up to 90 seconds and covering a few hundred meters. The demonstration will be “high risk” but “high reward”, according to NASA. If it doesn’t work, it won’t impact the overall Mars 2020 mission goals, which include looking for signs of ancient life on Mars.
“We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit,” Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in the statement. “With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”