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The Mars 2020 rover will have help scouting its surroundings from a tiny robotic helicopter

When the next rover to arrives on Mars in early 2021, it will have a sidekick along for the ride. For the first time ever, NASA will be sending a small aircraft to Mars to help scout the terrain for potential points of interest on behalf of the slower-moving rover. Consisting of a small cube, four flexible landing feet and two high-speed rotors, the device looks a bit like a remote controlled helicopter you might find at a toy store. Of course, since it will have to fly in an environment with hardly any air, there’s a bit more to this particular aircraft than anything you’d find flying around this planet.

For a helicopter to take flight, it needs a sufficient amount of air to push against in order to create lift. On Earth, those conditions exist until you reach an altitude of around 40,000 feet, at which point the atmosphere is too thin to support a helicopter’s weight. The Martian atmosphere is even thinner, approximating flying on Earth at about 100,000 feet. To get off the surface of Mars, a number of engineering feats had to be achieved, from reducing the weight of the Mars helicopter to four pounds to designing dual rotors that can spin at around 3,000 rpm. Fortunately, tests in vacuum chambers suggest that this helicopter should manage to be the first robot to lift off the surface of the Red Planet.

Sight-seeing for science

As satisfying a milestone as that represents, scientists are hoping that the Mars Helicopter will make some important contributions to the rover’s work, starting planning routes. The Curiosity rover has been working for close to six years, but has yet to travel a full 12 miles across Mars. We have spacecraft orbiting Mars, but researchers are hoping that the Helicopter can give us a more practical bird’s-eye-view of the rover’s surroundings. Even flying a few hundred feet will help mission controllers pick where to send the rover, making it’s time more efficient. This work won’t be strictly necessary, but even 30 days of modest flights would likely add to the impact of the rover’s investigations.

Since the Mars Helicopter is solar powered, there’s a chance it will be able to do more than its five scheduled test flights. Each trip will help prove that this kind of reconnaissance is viable for future missions, documenting details that may be hard to pick up from orbiting instruments like the ExoMars Orbiter or ground-based rovers and landers.

Source: Mars Helicopter to Fly on NASA's Next Red Planet Rover Mission, Jet Propulsion Laboratory News

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