NASA has conducted and successfully completed the first flight test of the agency’s Mars 2020 Helicopter.
The first tests of the flight model (the actual unit set to be launched with the Mars 2020 rover) were conducted in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Twenty-Five-Foot Space Simulator in California. The Space Simulator is a vacuum chamber that sucks out all the nitrogen, oxygen and other gasses from within the chamber. In their place, the team injects carbon dioxide, a gas that makes up a majority of the Martian atmosphere.
However, duplicating the atmosphere of Mars is only the first challenge to creating a test environment comparable to the surface of the Red Planet.
“Getting our helicopter into an extremely thin atmosphere is only part of the challenge,” said Teddy Tzanetos, test conductor for the Mars Helicopter at JPL. “To truly simulate flying on Mars we have to take away two-thirds of Earth’s gravity because Mars’ gravity is that much weaker.”
In order to compensate for the differences in gravity, the JPL team devised a gravity offload system. The system utilizes a motorised lanyard attached to the top of the helicopter that applies an uninterrupted tug that simulates Martian gravity. The combination of the compensated gravity and replicated atmosphere is a close approximation to the conditions the helicopter will face on the surface of Mars.
“The gravity offload system performed perfectly, just like our helicopter,” said Tzanetos. “We only required a 2-inch hover to obtain all the data sets needed to confirm that our Mars helicopter flies autonomously as designed in a thin Mars-like atmosphere; there was no need to go higher. It was a heck of a first flight.”
Following a successful first flight test, an additional test was conducted the next day with the helicopter logging a grand total of one minute of flight time.
With the completion of the second flight, engineers concluding testing and cleared the Mars 2020 Helicopter for launch. It will be launched with the Mars 2020 rover aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in July 2020. The rover is expected to touch down on the surface of Mars in February 2021.