NASA’s Mars helicopter almost ready to launch

In 2021, the autonomous helicopter will be the first vehicle in history to power flight in the tenuous Martian environment.

According to NASA, the 4lb (1.8kg) helicopter will soar above Mars in a series of demonstration tests.

It will launch next summer in the belly of the Mars 2020 rover, landing on the Red Planet in February 2021.

The rover will look for signs of life on the planet and return samples back to Earth while the goal of the helicopter is to hover above to give scientists insight into the Martian surface.

The system needs to go through these tests because the Red Planet’s air is just 1% as dense as that of Earth.

It then was moved to Lockheed Martin Space in Denver for compatibility testing with the Mars Helicopter Delivery System.

There, the connections and mechanisms between the delivery system and helicopter were tested to make sure they fit together. 

The pair were put through their paces experiencing vibrations similar to what happens during a launch through the atmosphere and cruising in the severe environment.

They were also put into a thermal vacuum chamber to see how they performed in cold temperatures (minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 129 degrees Celsius), similar to the conditions they’ll experience in deep space and on the Martian surface.

With these tests complete, the helicopter will be brought back to JPL, in California, where it will have a solar panel installed and more procedures.

Its imaging capabilities will also be tested to check its capacity for beaming high-resolution photos of Mars to Earth.

“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,” Mr Aung said.

“But we will never really be done with testing the helicopter until we fly at Mars.”

There are still hurdles in the way for the team to overcome, such as the time lag involved in controlling the system from Earth.

It takes between 4 minutes and 24 minutes for signals to travel between Earth and Mars, depending on the positions of the two planets in space.

“Future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations,’ NASA officials added in the statement. 

“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.”

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