NASA to fly a helicopter on Mars in an interplanetary first


What started as a technology development project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in August 2013, has become The Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft which will travel with the agency's Mars 2020 rover mission, now scheduled to launch in July 2020 and be the first heavier-than-air craft on another world.

"NASA has a proud history of firsts", said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement.

Both Bridenstine and Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, highlighted the fact that, if successful, Mars Helicopter will be the first heavier-than-air vehicle to fly on another world. "The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", according to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

In development since 2013, the 4-lb.

In a mission scheduled for the summer of 2020, NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars, the organization announced Friday.

It will be attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover, a wheeled robot that aims to determine the habitability of the Martian environment, search for signs of ancient life and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers. The rover also will cache rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth.

The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project, according to NASA: If the helicopter fails, it won't affect the rest of the Mars 2020 rover's mission, but if it succeeds, the agency will have a powerful new tool to survey the planet and access now unreachable locations. Its primary payload will be a camera.

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This self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle on Vera Rubin Ridge, Mars.

The helicopter's twin blades will whirl at about 10 times the rate of a helicopter's blades on Earth - at 3,000 rpm - to stay aloft in Mars' thin atmosphere. The flight will last only about two minutes until the battery charge runs out.

Then, it will attempt to make its historic, autonomous first flight. The full test campaign will include up to five flights, eventually reaching about 1,000 distance.

"I am not an advocate for the helicopter and I don't believe the Mars 2020 project has been an advocate for the helicopter", he added.

Once the helicopter is settled, the scientists will command it to take off. "Everybody agrees it will not put the mission at risk", he said.

"In my opinion, [operating the helicopter] comes right out of the science time", Farley said.

"We're very excited about this and the potential it has for opening up a whole new paradigm for how to explore Mars", said David Lavery, the program executive for solar system exploration at NASA headquarters. "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 (30,480 meters) up", Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.