Helicopters are a relatively routine sight here on Earth, but they’re far more scarce elsewhere. As far as any of us know right now, there are no other helicopters anywhere in the universe other than on Earth. That’s about to change though. The NASA Mars 2020 rover will include a helicopter of sorts to determine whether heavier-than-air vehicles can fly on Mars.
The helicopter isn’t going to be exactly what you’re thinking, it will be quite a lot smaller. Sending stuff into space is difficult, and the bigger/heavier the payload the more difficult it is. NASA has been working for years to shrink their flying vehicle. The result is a body about the size of a softball and a weight of just under 4 pounds. A pair of counter-rotating blades will provide lift, while other sensors and instruments will keep it powered up and in working order. Solar cells will keep the battery charged, while a heating mechanism will help keep it from freezing on cold Mars nights.
This helicopter will be hitching a ride to the red planet on the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. Once the rover has landed, it will gently drop the helicopter from its undercarriage before backing away to a safe distance. After a series of health checks and other diagnostics are run, the commands will be sent for the first ever autonomous flight on another planet. The vehicle will have a few set routines to fly early on, starting with a simple hover test rising to about 3 meters and holding there for around 30 seconds. Flights will get increasingly complicated, moving farther and farther away from the rover while scouting the path ahead.
The helicopter is considered an incredibly high risk/high reward situation. Even if it doesn’t fly at all, the rover will have plenty of tests to run and can still be a huge success. If flight is achieved, that opens all kinds of interesting doors for the future of both un-manned and manned space travel. You can check out NASA’s mock up of the helicopter in the demo video below:
Last Updated on May 13, 2018.