NASA has announced that its Mars 2020 mission will include a small helicopter.
The appeal of a ‘copter is obvious: it’ll be faster than a crawling robot, see further and should be less likely to be stuck in sand.
While Bernoulli’s Principle holds on Mars, the red planet’s atmosphere is vastly thinner than Earth’s so a copter needs to be lighter and rotate its blades faster to achieve lift. NASA’s therefore designed a machine with blades that “will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rpm – about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth”, weighs just 1.8kg and has a “fuselage … about the size of a softball”.
NASA’s planned a “30-day flight test campaign” comprising five flights. For starters the ‘copter will climb to 3 meters, hover for 30 seconds, then descend. Subsequent flights will reach “up to a few hundred meters, and longer durations as long as 90 seconds”.
The craft will be autonomous but will have a wireless connection to the Mars 2020 rover to exchange data.
The ‘copter is non-essential, so if it fails, the rest of the mission will be just fine.
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.
Recent NASA missions to Mars have vastly exceeded their expected lifespans and as this helicopter has been equipped with a solar panel to recharge its lithium-ion batteries, plus kit to keep its innards warm enough to work during frigid Martian nights, perhaps we’ll see ‘copter’s-eye views of the red planet for years to come. ®