NASA will send tiny helicopter to Mars

NASA depiction of the helicopter to travel on the Mars 2020 mission

A recent statement suggests that NASA will soon launch a Mars helicopter in order to get a better aerial view of the planet.

"Exploring the Red Planet with NASA's Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future", said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington.

However, reality is not that simple as unlike Earth's atmosphere, the Martian atmosphere is 100 times thinner which poses enormous challenges for a helicopter. "It's fitting that the United States of America is the first nation in history to fly the first heavier-than-air craft on another world", Culberson said.

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.

The Mars Helicopter is an autonomous drone which weighs just below four pounds, with twin counter-rotating blades that will hit the thin atmosphere on Mars at about 3,000 rpm, which is about ten times the rate of a helicopter flying on Earth.

It seems like the obvious answer to explore Mars, but sending a helicopter out there is an incredible, but possibly feasible, challenge.

According to Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, in a recent statement, "The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet".

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The helicopter also contains built-in capabilities needed for operation at Mars, including solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian 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 Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with NASA's Mars 2020 rover.

NASA has announced that its Mars 2020 mission will include a small helicopter.

NASA hopes that the helicopter will fly around 10 feet high and then stay hovering stable for 30 seconds for its firs test flight.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers".

"Though the agency already has an orbiter lurking in space, it is way high up". 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 a child sees the Curiosity rover on Mars and hears how slow its progress is over the planet, they might be thinking a somewhat obvious question: why don't we just send a helicopter there?

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