NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars

The Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.

“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only 1% that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up,” said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. “To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinise everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.”

The Mars Helicopter, designed and tested over four years by a team from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), weighs in at 1.8kg. Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will spin at almost 3,000 rpm – about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.

The helicopter also contains built-in capabilities needed for operation at Mars, including solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights.

Once the rover is on the planet’s surface, the helicopter will be deployed, the rover will then be driven away to a safe distance from which it will relay commands and controllers on Earth will command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight.

“We don’t have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time,” said Aung. “Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.”

On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 3 meters, where it will hover for about 30 seconds. The 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally farther flight distances, up to a few hundred meters, and durations up to 90 seconds.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

Mars 2020 will launch on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.