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Mars Helicopter
An artist’s conception shows the Mars Helicopter. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has given the thumbs-up to putting a helicopter on Mars.

The Mars Helicopter, which is actually more of an autonomous drone, will be packed into the belly pan of a Red Planet rover that’s due for launch in 2020.

For months, mission planners and scientists have been debating whether it’d be worth flying the 4-pound rotorcraft for a 30-day test campaign.

Adding the drone to the rover potentially takes away from the space and time that can be devoted to other scientific experiments. But in today’s announcement, Bridenstine said the helicopter would build on NASA’s “proud history of firsts.”

“The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling,” he said. “The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery and exploration missions to Mars.”

The Mars Helicopter started out as a technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2013. It has a fuselage that’s about the size of a softball, solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through Martian nights that can get far colder than 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The mission plan calls for the rover to set the drone down on the surface, drive away and relay the commands for up to five autonomous flights, lasting as long as 90 seconds each and ranging up to a few hundred yards (meters) away. The copter won’t be controllable in real time from Earth, due to the light-speed travel time involved.

Because Mars’ atmospheric density is only 1 percent of Earth’s, NASA says the drone’s twin, counter-rotating blades would have to turn at nearly 3,000 rpm – about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said the demonstration could blaze a trail for future robotic scouts on Mars.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said Zurbuchen. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing NASA’s budget, played up the flight demonstration’s inspirational value.

“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 in NASA’s news release. “This exciting and visionary achievement will inspire young people all over the United States to become scientists and engineers, paving the way for even greater discoveries in the future.”

The Mars 2020 rover is being prepared for launch in July 2020, with its landing on the Red Planet planned for February 2021. One of the rover’s key tasks will be to collect samples of Martian rock and soil that could be returned to Earth during a follow-up mission.

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