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A Rotorcraft to Map Mars

Mimi Aung of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory gives a glimpse of what to expect from the launch mission of the Mars Helicopter.

By Charles Cooper

Sometime around February 2021, NASA will drop a new rotorcraft on Mars that will be the first device to fly in the atmosphere of a planet besides Earth.

“In deep space exploration we have never done anything like this before,” said Mimi Aung, the project manager overseeing a team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that has labored since 2013 to demonstrate the viability of heavier-than-air flying vehicles on Mars.

The Mars Helicopter, as it’s called, is a technological marvel. Weighing in at slightly less than four pounds, it sports a fuselage that’s about the size of a softball. NASA used off-the-shelf materials, including lightweight avionics, solar cells, high-density batteries and carbon fibers. The flying device is also a completely “green” piece of equipment, built with solar panels that can collect solar energy to recharge the battery when the helicopter is at rest.

Upon landing, the helicopter will spend most of the day on the Martian surface recharging its lithium-ion batteries as it prepares to venture into the Martian atmosphere during the planned 30-day flight test campaign. The idea is to perform reconnaissance missions of nearby regions that the Rover cannot access due to ground impediments or steep terrain.

The First Flight

In its initial flight, the helicopter will hover three meters above the surface for about 30 seconds. NASA hopes to send the helicopter as high as 40 meters into the atmosphere. The maximum flight distance will extend a few hundred meters from the Rover and the longest it will remain aloft at any one time is 90 seconds.

“When we explore the surface with Rovers we want the ability to see ahead with high-definition images. This is going to allow detailed information about the Martian surface that we’ve never had before,” Aung said.

NASA controllers will send commands to the Rover, which will then relay information to the helicopter. The transmissions will take between four and 12 minutes to arrive. Time lag will vary depending on the relative position of the Earth and Mars.

The helicopter will need to survive on its own through the cold Martian nights, which can get down to 90 degrees below zero centigrade. The unit includes a heating mechanism controlled by an onboard computer that reads the temperature sensors to prevent freezing. NASA envisions that future generations of aerial vehicles will be equipped with far more robust features, allowing them to travel farther and higher.


Academy Communications Department
This article was written by a member of the Academy Communications team.