NASA plans autonomous helicopters to land on Mars in 2020
15 May, 2018, 14:19
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.
In development at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) since 2013, the helicopter will be attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover and deployed in a suitable location once the rover touches down.
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.
After all, to them a helicopter is something which moves fast and low across the sky, so surely it would cover far more ground than a standard, wheeled rover?
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 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.
"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", Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in the statement. Mars Helicopter will be flying in an atmosphere that's as thin as altitudes of 100,000 feet on Earth, compared to an average helicopter on earth which just flies 40,000 feet high.
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To get a sense of the challenge at hand, the helicopter needs to fly in atmospheric pressure just 1pc of what exists on Earth in a gravity field only three-eighths as strong.
The mission will also test a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying available resources, understanding the weather and other characteristics that will affect manned missions to the red planet. The rover then will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands. For starters the 'copter will climb to 3 meters, hover for 30 seconds, then descend.
"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. If all goes according to plan, the craft will make four more flights over the course of a 30-day test campaign, each progressively longer and more complex than the first.
Since it is a technology demonstration, the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project.
But if this endeavor truly takes off (sorry) it could add a valuable and revealing new dimension to space exploration missions down the road.
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