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NASA’s Mars helicopter passes flight test, expected to launch in 2020


Image: NASA/JPLCaltech

June 07, 2019

NASA’s first Mars Helicopter recently passed important tests and is closer to getting approved for taking part in the 2020 Mars launch this summer.

The rover will search the red planet for signs of past life and collect samples that will be returned to Earth for future analysis. The helicopter will soar in the sky for demonstration flights. It is difficult to get a heavier-than-air craft to take flight on Mars due to the planet having thinner air than Earth. After the 2020 mission, the helicopter could used to scout for routes for the rover to take.

MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in statement, “Nobody’s built a Mars helicopter before, so we are continuously entering new territory.”

“We expect to complete our final tests and refinements and deliver the helicopter to the High Bay 1 clean room for integration with the rover sometime this summer. But we will never really be done with testing the helicopter until we fly at Mars.”

The helicopter is only a demonstration model meant to show that powered flight in the Martian atmosphere is possible and therefore has no scientific instruments on board. Mars’s air is only 1% as dense as Earth’s.

Another issue NASA will face is the lag time from the helicopter being controlled from Earth, as it takes anywhere between 4 to 24 minutes for signals to travel between Earth and Mars (depending on the position of the two planets in space.)

In a statement, NASA officials said, “Future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations. They could investigate previously unvisited or difficult to reach destinations such as cliffs, caves, and deep craters, act as scouts for human crews or carry small payloads from one location to another. But before any of that happens, a test vehicle has to prove it is possible.”

The Mars 2020 mission is set to launch in July 2020 and arrive on Mars by February 2021. The rover and helicopter will investigate Jezero crater, where NASA hopes to find traces of ancient life.

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