Artist’s concept of a Martian helicopter.
Illustration: NASA JPL/Caltech

NASA will be testing heavier-than-air flight on Mars by sending miniature robot helicopter with the upcoming Mars 2020 rover.

The four-pound helicopter’s rotors will spin at 3,000 rpms, 10 times faster than helicopters here on Earth, according to a NASA release. That’s because the Martian atmosphere is only about 1 percent the density of Earth’s.

“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 as powerful as it can possibly be,” Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

But the atmosphere isn’t the only challenge. Mars is several light-minutes away from Earth, so you can’t just control the helicopter with a remote. Instead, the researchers need to program a list of commands autonomously, as they do for the rovers.

The copter is set to fly up to five times during its 30-day test run on Mars, increasing in height to around a thousand feet for up to 90 seconds. Its first flight will last 30 seconds and climb to 10 feet.

This is an ambitious, experimental mission not critical to the success of Mars 2020. But if it works, it could offer a new way for scientists to explore the Martian surface.

The Mars 2020 rover, meanwhile, will be busy hunting for signs of life and analyzing rocks. We humans would like to visit Mars one day, after all, so it will be important to understand the planet’s structure and hazards as best we can. Mars 2020 will arrive on the red planet by February 2021, if everything goes according to plan.

But if you’re hungry for Martian science now, you’re in luck. The InSight lander successfully took off aboard an Atlas V rocket this month and is now on its way to our rocky red neighbor. It will arrive at Mars around Thanksgiving of this year, where it will measure seismic activity to help scientists understand how rocky planets evolve. And the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has just begun sending back fabulous images of the Martian surface.

Anyway, we’re putting a freaking helicopter on Mars!



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