We have known for some time that NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars. The vehicle, called the Mars Helicopter, is undergoing flight tests at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The small helicopter will arrive on Mars as part of the Rover mission of Mars 2020.
The Mars helicopter is quite small, less than 1.8 kg (4 pounds). It is made of lightweight carbon fiber and other materials such as aluminum, silicone and foil. The version that is being tested is the real vehicle that will make the trip to Mars.
The helicopter of Mars is a technological demonstration mission. That means that the overall success of the Mars Rover 2020 mission of which it is a part will not depend on the success of the helicopter. It is being labeled so that NASA can learn to design, build and use aircraft on Mars.
There are great challenges to fly on Mars. The energy source can not be combustion (unless you use hydrazine) because there is no oxygen. The atmosphere is so thin that you would need huge wings, which is problematic for the trip to Mars. And any aircraft would have to be autonomous, because you can not control it remotely from here on Earth.
But there are a lot of benefits to getting a plane to work on Mars.
It could be used to travel a landing area for other missions, much more accurately than any orbiter. It could explore elevated traits, fly in lava pipes and, basically, expand the scientific scope of any mission of the scout vehicle or landing vehicle of which it was a part. That's why NASA is still working on it.
The Mars Helicopter solves the problems of flying on Mars with intelligent engineering. It works with solar energy and uses its own small panels to recharge its battery. It uses rotors against rotation to keep your space requirements low during the trip to Mars. The rotors of opposite rotation are necessary because with a single rotor, the fuselage will turn in the opposite direction. That's why most helicopters have tail rotors.
It is also autonomous. It will take short flights away from the rover, only 90 seconds each.
"But this recent test of the flight model was the real deal, this is our helicopter bound for Mars."
MiMi Aung, Mars Helicopter Project Manager.
The test focuses on how helo can operate on Mars. NASA used its Space Simulator, a large vacuum chamber in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The simulator can mimic the thin atmosphere and low temperature on Mars.
"The Martian atmosphere has only one percent of the density of the Earth," said Mimi Aung, project manager of the Mars helicopter at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Our test flights could have a similar atmospheric density here on Earth, you put your aerodrome 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) up, so you can not go anywhere and find that.
"Preparing for that first flight on Mars, we recorded more than 75 flight minutes with an engineering model, which was a close approximation of our helicopter," said Aung. "But this recent test of the flight model was the real deal, this is our helicopter bound for Mars, we needed to see that it worked as advertised."
However, the simulator can not imitate the low gravity of Mars. To do that, engineers devised a gravity unloading system. It is a cord that attaches to the top of the helicopter and pulls it off. The uninterrupted pull provides enough lift to simulate the weakest Martian gravity.
"The gravity unloading system worked perfectly, just like our helicopter," said Teddy Tzanetos, test driver for the Mars Helicopter Program. "We only require a displacement of 2 inches (5 centimeters) to obtain all the necessary data sets to confirm that our Mars helicopter is flying autonomously, as it is designed in a thin atmosphere like that of Mars; There was no need to go higher. It was a great first flight. "
This could be the beginning of something great for Martian exploration. These airborne vehicles can not carry much of the payload, so they will never replace vehicles and landing vehicles. But as part of a rover's mission, they could add a lot.
They could be the eyes of a rover, helping drivers choose the best route around obstacles. They can explore areas that are totally inaccessible to rovers. They could serve as explorers, finding the best places to collect samples or to drill.
They could also give us some excellent candy for the eyes of Mars, something we can expect from each NASA mission.