NASA is putting the finishing touches on its Mars helicopter

Rodiano Bonacci
Giugno 8, 2019

NASA says that it isn't putting any science instruments on the helicopter beyond a camera, yet that rather it's a "technology demonstrator" to demonstrate that it's possible to remotely fly a Martian drone from Earth. NASA is planning to send its Mars Helicopter, a part of Mars 2020 mission, to the surface of Mars next year.

"Nobody's built a Mars Helicopter before, so we are continuously entering new territory", said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Curiosity's two-year mission has long since lapsed and the rover has spent almost 2,500 days on Mars since landing back in 2012.

In January, NASA's Mars helicopter team operated the flight model in a simulated Martian environment. Unlike the rover, the helicopter will not carry any scientific instruments, its main goal will be to prove that heavier-than-air vehicles can operate in the thin Martian atmosphere, which has about 1 percent the density of Earth's gaseous envelope.

Should the technology demonstrator be successful, future missions could rely on helicopters to scout potentially risky areas such as cliffs or caves, or even to transport small payloads.

They were also put into a thermal vacuum chamber to see how they performed in cold temperatures (minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 129 degrees Celsius), similar to the conditions they'll experience in deep space and on the Martian surface. They could also be used as scouts or to carry objects quickly over long distances. But before any of that happens, a test vehicle has to prove it is possible.

In Denver, the Mars Helicopter and its delivery system were checked to make sure that the electrical connections and mechanisms that linked the flight vehicle with its cradle fit snuggly.

The Mars Helicopter is now back at JPL, where it will has already had a new solar panel installed. Of course, there's more testing to come.

The Mars Helicopter will launch with the Mars 2020 rover on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in July 2020 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The Mars Helicopter is a 4 lb flying robot that will be deployed on the Martian surface by the rover to explore the surroundings and other hard-to-reach places that rovers can't get to. The helicopter will separate from the rover after landing.

NASA's Mars 2020 mission will span at minimum one Mars year, which lasts 687 Earth days, and includes a newly designed rover that is around the size of compact auto, but features upgraded wheels and also a new core sampling drill for harvesting rock and soil samples not on the surface of the planet.

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