NASA officials have confirmed that a small helicopter aboard the Mars 2020 rover will be the first to explore the skies of the Red Planet.
Engineers working on the development of the Mars 2020 Scout face several unique challenges. Once on the surface of the Red Planet, the helicopter will need to be able to operate in the thin Martian atmosphere, be capable of dealing with the planet’s cold nights and do so while navigating autonomously.
“Flying a heavier-than-air vehicle within Mars’ thin atmosphere has never been done before, and we’re excited our aeronautics experts could help with this important space mission,” said Susan Gorton, NASA’s manager for the Revolutionary Vertical Lift Technology (RVLT) project.
The design set to face these challenges will be approximately the size of a softball. The Scout will be powered by two 1.2-meter (4-foot) rotor blades spinning at 2,400 rotations per minute, about 10 times the speed required to operate in Earth’s atmosphere. With its small onboard battery, it will be capable of up to 90 seconds of flight. Following each flight, the battery will be charged by a solar array fitted above its rotors.
Currently, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are planning to complete up to five explorative flights. Each flight will be recorded by a small camera, not unlike that equipped to most modern smartphones. Apart from the small camera, the Scout will not be equipped with any science equipment with simply managing flight being the primary goal of the mission.
“The Mars Helicopter’s initial flight will represent that planet’s version of the Wright Brothers’ achievement at Kitty Hawk and the opening of a new era,” said Gorton. “For those of us whose research revolves around all things related to flight, that would be a remarkable, historic moment.”
Find out more: NASA Planning to Explore Mars by Air