While we all do our part to curb the spread of COVID-19, we can still get excited about upcoming missions to space. One of the most peculiar this summer will see NASA launch a helicopter to Mars aboard the Perseverance rover.
Don’t go picturing a human-sized helicopter, however. The drone-copter has a wingspan of 1.2 meters (4 feet) and is expected to perform five flights during the 30-day mission. Although the helicopter will assist Perseverance in finding interesting targets, its primary mission is to simply demonstrate that the technology is viable. This will be the first heavier-than-air craft flying on another world.
In a new interview, the helicopter's chief engineer, Bob Balaram, described how the project went from being an outlandish idea to a reality, as well as the challenges the mission team has faced so far and what it is yet to come.
"Bob is the inventor of our Mars Helicopter. He innovated the design and followed up on that vision to its fruition as chief engineer through all phases of design, development and test," said project manager Mimi Aung in a statement. "Whenever we encountered a technical roadblock – and we encountered many roadblocks – we always turned to Bob, who always carries an inexhaustible set of potential solutions to be considered. Come to think of it, I don't think I have ever seen Bob feeling stuck at any point!"
The helicopter is equipped with solar panels to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heater to keep it warm during the frigid Martian nights. It will fly autonomously in conditions not experienced by any other flying vehicle on Earth. Mars' atmosphere is only 1 percent of our own, which is like being 30,000 meters (100,000 feet) above the ground on Earth.
The mission will launch from Cape Canaveral in July and is expected to reach the Red Planet next February, landing in the Jezero Crater. However, its maiden flight on Mars won’t happen immediately. A 2.5-month prepping period is on the cards before this helicopter soars above the Martian surface.