Mars Helicopter to launch as part of Nasa's 2020 mission

NASA wants to send a helicopter to Mars

A small, autonomous helicopter could soon soar above the rusty rocks of Mars.

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 chopper will fly through the Martian air to observe if vehicles can levitate on Mars, which has an atmosphere 100 times thinner than on Earth.

While Russian missions to Venus dropped balloons into its atmosphere, this helicopter will be both the first powered flying machine and the first human-designed heavier-than-air vehicle to visit another planet.

NASA has always been able to check out Mars on the ground with rovers and landers and from far above with orbital spacecraft. The Mars Helicopter weighs just under four pounds, with a fuselage about as big as a softball.

The undertaking began in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

When the helicopter is on the ground, it will be at an Earth-equivalent altitude of 100,000 feet, which is harder on the helicopter.

The helicopter's twin, counter-rotating blades will rotate at nearly 3,000 rpm - about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth. "The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in the statement.

In order to fly in Mars' thin atmosphere, the space helicopter has to be super light, yet as powerful as possible.

Once the rover is on the planet's surface, a suitable location will be found to deploy the helicopter down from the vehicle and place it onto the ground.

Because of its huge distance - Earth will be several minutes away, traveling at the speed of light - Aung said that direct control will be impossible.

"If we were to fly the helicopter as a tech demonstration on something like Mars 2020, we would envision a very small number of flights to prove the aerodynamic and handling characteristics, and the concept of operations, and that would be the end of the demonstration", Watzin said.

NASA considers the mission "a high-risk, high-reward project" and if it fails, it doesn't impact the rest of the rover's mission. Scientists will use the instruments aboard the rover to identify and collect samples of rock and soil, encase them in sealed tubes, and leave them on the planet's surface for potential return to Earth on a future Mars mission.

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?

Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004 and has outlived its original plan for a 90-day mission. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve". If the program works as NASA expects, the agency would have a whole new way to explore the Martian surface.

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