NASA's next Mars rover mission to carry tiny helicopter

NASA's next Mars rover mission to carry tiny helicopter

NASA's next Mars rover mission to carry tiny helicopter

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said that NASA has a proud history of firsts and the idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. "This exciting and visionary achievement will inspire young people all over the United States to become scientists and engineers, paving the way for even greater discoveries in the future". "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", Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, said in a statement.

After four years of development, NASA managed to reduce the weight to just under four pounds (1.8 kilograms), which will be key to operate the machine in Mars's thin atmosphere. The Mars 2020 mission is due to arrive at the red planet in February 2021.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's Associate Administrator for science, said that the ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers, and the views from a helicopter flying across Mars will also provide NASA with a stellar public relations tool as it seeks worldwide support for sending humans to the planet in the 2030s or later. The craft is powered by batteries that will be recharged by onboard solar cells and has self-heating mechanisms to help it handle Mars nights. The new Mars Helicopter will serve as a low-flying scout and could pave a way for similar missions that might provide access to hard-to-reach regions on Martian surface.

The helicopter will ride to Mars attached to the rover's belly pan, officials said. The air pressure at the planet's surface is lower than it is at a helicopter's maximum altitude when flying above Earth.

Flights will be programed because the distance to Mars precludes real-time commands from Earth.

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NASA is sending a light, autonomous rotorcraft, dubbed the Mars Helicopter, to demonstrate the viability of heavier-than-air vehicles on Mars and get a bird's eye view of the red planet.

In order to take off, the tiny flying robot needs to spin it's two blades ten times faster - 3,000 times per minute - than it would on Earth while carrying batteries and other hardware crafted to be as light as possible.

If the Mars Helicopter fails, the overall Mars 2020 mission will not be harmed.

NASA's planned a "30-day flight test campaign" comprising five flights. On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 3 metres where it will hover for about 30 seconds. It will attempt controlled flight in Mars' thin atmosphere, which may enable more ambitious missions in the future.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", he added. The space agency plans to do it as part of its next Mars mission. The six-wheeled rover will hunt for signs of habitable environments as well as sites that may have once hosted microbial life, examining the Red Planet with 23 cameras, a microphone and a drill to collect samples.

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