NASA flying helicopter to Mars using remote control

Enlarge ImageA Mars Helicopter prototype undergoes some testing on Earth.                  Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser  CNET

NASA now has two cars roaming Mars - the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers.

"NASA has a proud history of firsts", said Jim Bridenstine, the agency's new administrator. Scientists want to test how "heavier-than-air vehicles" will operate on the red planet, Nasa said in a release.

Attached to the Mars Rover, the chopper will be dropped at a suitable place from where it will try to take off.

This small helicopter weighing 1.8 kilograms would be remote-controlled. The Martian atmosphere is so thin that the altitude of the helicopter at takeoff on Mars already corresponds to an altitude of 30,500 meters on Earth. Its counter-rotating blades will revolve at 3,000 RPM, about ten times the speed of a helicopter flying over Earth, made necessary by the thin, Martian atmosphere.

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The space agency is looking to make history by sending the autonomous rotorcraft into the skies on the Red planet.

When the Mars 2020 Rover lands on Mars, the Mars Helicopter will deploy from the bottom of the space probe. The "marscopter" has built-in capabilities to ensure it can function autonomously, as well as solar cells to charge its batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it from freezing during the cold Martian nights. This is meant to demonstrate the viability and usefulness of such aircraft on Mars. It will also have to be completely autonomous because commands take a long time to reach Mars from Earth.

"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", Aung added.

Because Earth will be several light minutes away, "there is no way to joystick this mission in real time", Aung said.

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A successful test could open the door to using helicopters as scouts on future missions, surveying terrain that might be hard for rovers to navigate and even accessing locations that are unreachable via ground travel.

The rover will conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers.

NASA stated it intends that the 30day flight test interval which could include as many as five flights, so starting with a brief vertical jaunt to hover for around 30 seconds at a elevation of 10 feet (3 meters) and progressing to flight distances upto a couple hundred yards and durations up to 90 seconds.

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