NASA has been sending drones to Mars in the form of rovers for decades now with the expressed goal of exploring the red planet and collecting samples. As such, NASA is thinking of sending a flying drone to the red planet that will provide scientists an aerial view of the planet. Essentially, the chopper will be attached to the belly of 2020 Mars rover, the successor of Curiosity, and flown to Mars.
Despite taking steps in order to ensure we have a Mars helicopter that is light as possible, the team has managed to develop a fuselage that is as small as a softball and with a weight of just a few kilograms while maintaining incredible power and durability. The craft is powered by batteries that will be recharged by onboard solar cells and has self-heating mechanisms to help it handle Mars nights. According to Mimi Aung, the Helicopter Project Manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, they do not have an autopilot because Earth will be several light minutes away, it is impossible to joystick the mission in real time.
Now they are working on a small electric helicopter that they plan to fly on Mars during the 2020 mission.
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The mission will also test a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying available resources, understanding the weather and other characteristics that will affect manned missions to the red planet. It has twin, counter-rotating blades that will slice the air at almost 3,000 revolutions per minute (rpm), which, according to NASA, is "about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth".
Thus far, all our explorations of Mars have taken place from space or on the surface with rovers. Just imagine that hovering just 10 feet (3 m) above the Martian surface is like soaring at 100,000 feet (30,000 m) above Earth. If it does work, NASA will be able to build on the design for future Mars missions. Once deployed and its batteries are charged, multiple tests will be performed before controllers on Earth command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight. If it crashes or doesn't work as well as hoped, the 2020 rover will still operate normally.
The craft will launch onboard the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July 2020 and is expected to arrive on Mars in February 2021. "On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds". The six-wheeled rover will hunt for signs of habitable environments as well as sites that may have once hosted microbial life, examining the Red Planet with 23 cameras, a microphone and a drill to collect samples.
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