A small, autonomous helicopter could soon soar above the rusty rocks of Mars. The Mars Helicopter is hitching a ride to the Red Planet as part of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission. The BBC said this could be the first test of “heavier-than-air aircraft on another planet.”

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“After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world,” NASA’s Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said. The technology demonstration has been many years in the making; it started in 2013 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The Mars Helicopter weighs just under four pounds, with a fuselage about as big as a softball. It has twin, counter-rotating blades that will slice the air at nearly 3,000 revolutions per minute (rpm), which, according to NASA, is “about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.”

Related: NASA unveils plan to make oxygen on Mars

Solar cells will help the Mars Helicopter charge its lithium-ion batteries, and it’s equipped with a heating mechanism to survive frigid Martian nights. NASA is planning as many as five flights over a 30-day test campaign. The first flight could see the Mars Helicopter fly up to 10 feet and hover there for around 30 seconds. As it flies farther and longer in following tests, it could travel “up to a few hundred meters” and soar for around 90 seconds.

JPL Mars Helicopter project manager Mimi Aung said in NASA’s statement, “The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up. To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and powerful as it can possibly be.”

NASA describes the Mars Helicopter as a high-risk, high-reward project. The agency said in their statement if the technology demonstration doesn’t work, the Mars 2020 mission won’t be impacted — but if it does, “helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground level.”


Via the BBC

Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech