The 2020 rover mission will have a cute but amazing companion: this tiny NASA helicopter will be the first to ever fly above another planet!
The Mars Helicopter is essentially a 1.8-kilogram drone of tiny proportions, about the size of a softball. Its lithium-ion batteries are powered by solar panels and it also features a heating mechanism to handle the extreme Martian temperatures recorded at night.
Because of the thin Martian atmosphere, its twin blades are able to rotate at about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth, at almost 3,000 rpm.
“It’s fitting that the United States of America is the first nation in history to fly the first heavier-than-air craft on another world,” Culberson said.
“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up. To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be,” explained Mimi Aung, the JPL Mars Helicopter project manager, in a press release.
Once the rover will land on Mars, this tiny helicopter will be deployed to do a series of tests.
According to NASA, this project is a technology demonstration that could pave the way to the use of helicopters as low-flying scouts of Mars. If it fails, the Mars 2020 mission won’t be impacted in any way.
Hopefully, all kinks will be ironed out by then, as the mission itself is programmed to reach Mars by February 2021.