NASA Sending A Tiny Helicopter To Mars In 2020

This illustration shows the drone-like Mars-copter that will be included in the Mars 2020 mission. NASA / JPL-Caltech

Time to spread those little wings and fly! NASA will send a helicopter to Mars in just three years as part of the agency’s Mars 2020 rover mission. They call it a helicopter but to my eye it looks and acts much like a drone. The small, autonomous rotor-craft is scheduled to launch in July 2020 to demonstrate how well heavier-than-air vehicles will perform in the planet’s thin atmosphere.

This artist’s concept depicts the early Martian environment (right) – believed to contain liquid water and a thicker atmosphere – versus the thin air and cold, dry environment seen at Mars today (left). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

After four years of design, testing and redesign, the copter weighs in at little under four pounds (1.8 kilograms) with a fuselage about the size of a softball. The twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin air at almost 3,000 rpm – about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth to compensate for an atmosphere only one percent that of Earth’s at sea level. Put another way, the air at the surface of Mars is the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up! Since the altitude record for any helicopter is 40,000 feet, this is no ordinary machine. It to be light, strong and powerful.

Solar cells charge the copter’s lithium-ion batteries (the same type of batteries in our drones here at my newspaper), and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights. Should it succeed it will become the first self-powered flying machine to explore another planet.

NASA Mars Helicopter Technology Demonstration

Once the rover is on the planet’s surface, mission control will find a suitable location to unpack and place the craft on the ground. The rover then will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands. After the batteries are charged and a battery of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will take the Mars-copter for a spin.

“We don’t have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time,” said  Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. “Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.”

The 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights at increasingly farther distances, up to a about a fifth of a mile (several hundred meters) and for as long as 90 seconds. On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds. After landing, the drone will will relay photos to the rover which will transmit them to Earth.

This illustration shows how the helicopter will take photos of craters and canyons from a bird’s-eye view with its high resolution camera. NASA / JPL-Caltech

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said Zurbuchen. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

Mars 2020 will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021. The rover will land in a place once friendly to life and search for signs (if any) of ancient Martian microbes in rock and soil. It will encase the samples in sealed tubes and leave them on the planet’s surface for potential return to Earth on a future Mars mission.