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NASA to Send Tiny Helicopter to Mars

14 May 2018

The agency's Mars Helicopter is an autonomous aircraft that aims to demonstrate controlled flight on the red planet's thin atmosphere in support of future Mars exploration missions, NASA said Saturday.

NASA said it will send a small helicopter to Mars as part of the US space agency's 2020 mission to place a next-generation rover on the Martian surface, marking the first time such an aircraft will be used on another world.

The Mars Helicopter is an autonomous drone which weighs just below four pounds, with twin counter-rotating blades that will hit the thin atmosphere on Mars at about 3,000 rpm, which is about ten times the rate of a helicopter flying on Earth. NASA's therefore designed a machine with blades that "will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at nearly 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". Its blades will spin at nearly 3,000 rpm, roughly 10 times the rate employed by helicopters on Earth.

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.

NASA officials said the rotorcraft will reach the Red Planet's surface attached to the car-sized rover.

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 hopes that the helicopter will fly around 10 feet high and then stay hovering stable for 30 seconds for its firs test flight. Solar cells will charge its lithium-ion batteries.

The Mars 2020 Project at JPL oversees rover development work for the science mission directorate, while the agency's Launch Services Program manages launch management efforts.

As for how feasible it is to build the drone, NASA's director of robotic Mars exploration Jim Watzin said that it has performed nearly 90 minutes of testing using a model within a Martian atmosphere test chamber.

NASA to Send Tiny Helicopter to Mars