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15 May 2018, 02:18 | Justin Tyler
NASA will send tiny helicopter to Mars
It will carry solar cells to charge up in the light of the sun and a heating mechanism to endure cold nights on the Red Planet.
Started in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Mars Helicopter had to prove that big things could come in small packages.
When the rover arrives at Mars in February 2021, it'll perform scouting missions to look for ideal landing zones on the surface, as well as scan the planet for signs of life, hazards that might matter to the future astronauts who finally venture to Mars.
The Mars Helicopter will be included in the Mars 2020 Rover mission which was announced on May 11. The Mars helicopter is now set to be attached to the belly of the 2020 Mars rover - adding extra capabilities to the successor of the massively successful Curiosity rover. "The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery and exploration missions to Mars". It will get to Mars by attaching to the belly pan of the Mars 2020rover. Four years in the making, the NASA team finally decided that the autonomous helicopter can be sent to the Red Planet.
JPL Mars Helicopter project manager Mimi Aung said in NASA's statement, "The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet".
The Mars helicopter is capable of whirling 3000 whirls per minute which is roughly 10 times the rate of helicopters we use regularly here in Earth - ensuring a seamless flight despite the massively different conditions on Mars when compared to flight launches on our own planet.
Once it's there, the rover will drive to a suitable take-off site, detach the helicopter, and drive away.
If the Mars Helicopter fails, the overall Mars 2020 mission will not be harmed. The first flight could see the Mars Helicopter fly up to 10 feet and hover there for around 30 seconds.
NASA's Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency's Mars 2020rover, now scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.
The full 30-day flight-test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally farther flight distances up to a few hundred meters and longer durations as long as 90 seconds.
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 2020rover's mission, but if it succeeds, the agency will have a powerful new tool to survey the planet and access now unreachable locations. The space agency plans to do it as part of its next Mars mission. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve". The car-size rover is equipped with a drill for collecting rock samples, instruments for conducting chemical analyses and seeking potentially habitable environments, an experiment to test the viability of producing oxygen from the planet's carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, and an array of sensors. If the program works as NASA expects, the agency would have a whole new way to explore the Martian surface.
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