A new helicopter designed to fly on Mars could help pave the way for human habitation of the Red Planet. The NASA-designed spacecraft is due to become the first heavier-than-air spacecraft to fly through the Martian atmosphere, following its arrival at that world in 2021.
NASA’s Mars Helicopter, weighing in at just four pounds, will ride to the Red Planet while strapped to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. Once the Martian rover touches down on the surface of Mars, the Mars Helicopter will be deployed.
“Nobody’s built a Mars Helicopter before, so we are continuously entering new territory. Our flight model — the actual vehicle that will travel to Mars — has recently passed several important tests,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Sure, the Food is Good, but this Place Lacks Atmosphere…
The atmosphere of Mars is only about one percent as dense as air at sea level on Earth, equivalent to the air density found more than 30,000 meters (100,000 feet) above sea level. This tenuous atmosphere provides little lift for spacecraft to glide on, presenting engineers with an unparalleled challenge.
In January 2019, the Mars Helicopter was tested in a simulated Martian environment, provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). A vacuum chamber, 7.6 meters (25 feet) across, was evacuated of the atmosphere within it, and these gases were replaced with a small quantity of carbon dioxide, simulating the Martian atmosphere. To compensate for the lower gravitational pull on Mars, a tether was attached to the craft, providing lift for the test vehicle. Although the Mars Helicopter was only flown to a height of five centimeters (two inches) above the ground, it was enough to prove the possibility of flight in the ultra-thin Martian atmosphere.
“The next time we fly, we fly on Mars. Watching our helicopter go through its paces in the chamber, I couldn’t help but think about the historic vehicles that have been in there in the past. The chamber hosted missions from the Ranger Moon probes to the Voyagers to Cassini, and every Mars rover ever flown. To see our helicopter in there reminded me we are on our way to making a little chunk of space history as well,” Aung stated.
Do You Know what I Go Through for This Mission?
The Mars Helicopter is not equipped with any scientific instruments, as it is designed solely as a technology demonstration. Engineers want to see if flight is actually possible on the Red Planet, and if such a vehicle can be controlled from Earth.
The Mars 2020 rover is designed to survey its landing site and assess the region for natural resources, as well as cataloging potential hazards to future human crews. While there, the robotic explorer will examine the crust, searching for signs of ancient extraterrestrial life in the Solar System. The Mars 2020 rover will also collect samples of the Martian surface and package them in vials, leaving them on the ground to (potentially) be collected by a future mission.
“By my reckoning, I’m about 100 kilometers from Pathfinder. Technically it’s called ‘Carl Sagan Memorial Station.’ But with all due respect to Carl, I can call it whatever the hell I want. I’m the King of Mars.
Mark Watney, The Martian
During testing, the Mars Helicopter has endured vibration tests simulating takeoff, temperatures as low as -129 Celsius (-200 Fahrenheit), and the harsh environment of vacuum chambers.
The Mars 2020 rover, together with the Mars Helicopter, will lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in July 2020. The vehicles are expected to arrive at Mars in February 2021.
If helicopter flights on Mars are possible, future vehicles could scour the Martian landscape for cliffs, explore deep craters, and plunge into unexplored caves dotting the surface of Mars. One day, it may be possible to ferry payloads from one human outpost to another on Mars, utilizing technology developed from this (admittedly) adorable little chopper.