NASA has sent rovers, satellites, and spacecraft to Mars. Now, the government agency is sending a helicopter to Earth’s planetary neighbor, with an aim to “demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.”
“The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”
The Martian helicopter will be attached to the belly of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, like a robotic kangaroo, when the mission takes off in a few years. In the demonstration video above, the two spacecraft make for a pretty impressive celestial pair.
Because Earth is several light minutes away, the Mars helicopter will act autonomously when it arrives on Mars, interpreting commands from the rover. Flight tests on the planet will last 30 days, beginning with a quick test where the helicopter will hover for 30 seconds about 10 feet off the Martian surface.
“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet,” said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. “The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up.”
If the mission is successful, NASA could use future helicopters to scout out new locations on Mars to study, including areas not reachable by ground travel.
When the rover lands with the helicopter attached, NASA says the small craft will subsist on solar power. It will also utilize heating mechanisms to keep its components warm during the Red Planet’s chilly nights.
NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is expected to launch in 2020, with an arrival timeframe of February 2021. If everything goes according to plan, the first helicopter could take flight on the Martian planet in just a few years.