Wednesday, 23 January, 2019

NASA plans autonomous helicopters to land on Mars in 2020

NASA depiction of the helicopter to travel on the Mars 2020 mission NASA plans autonomous helicopters to land on Mars in 2020
Elijah Vega | 14 May, 2018, 14:31

"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 (30,480 meters) up", Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

The next vehicle that NASA is sending to Mars is going to be an autonomous helicopter of sorts, where the United States space agency will bundle in an autonomous helicopter into the Mars 2020 rover in order to test airborne vehicles on Mars. After five years of development, the team of rocket scientists came up with a four pounds helicopter (1.8 kg), with a fuselage about the size of a softball and equipped with twin, counter-rotating blades that will spin at 3,000 rpm.

To get a sense of the challenge at hand, the helicopter needs to fly in atmospheric pressure just 1pc of what exists on Earth in a gravity field only three-eighths as strong. Once deployed and its batteries are charged, multiple tests will be performed before controllers on Earth command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight.

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"We don't have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time", Aung stated while stressing on the importance of autonomy for the demonstration. For starters the 'copter will climb to 3 meters, hover for 30 seconds, then descend. After placing the helicopter on the ground, the rover will be directed to drive to a safe distance to relay commands. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars. Essentially, the chopper will be attached to the belly of 2020 Mars rover, the successor of Curiosity, and flown to Mars.

"If we were to fly the helicopter as a tech demonstration on something like Mars 2020, we would envision a very small number of flights to prove the aerodynamic and handling characteristics, and the concept of operations, and that would be the end of the demonstration", Watzin said.

The helicopter is meant to demonstrate the viability and usefulness of such aircraft on Mars, NASA said, with potential roles as a low-flying scout or to reach locations inaccessible from the ground. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve". The Mars 2020 mission is due to arrive at the red planet in February 2021.

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