Monday, 21 May, 2018

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
Doris Mccormick | 15 May, 2018, 19:16

If it does work, NASA will be able to build on the design for future Mars missions.

While Russian missions to Venus dropped balloons into its atmosphere, this helicopter will be both the first powered flying machine and the first human-designed heavier-than-air vehicle to visit another planet. "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 Helicopter was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2013. It took four years of testing and tweaking to make the first prototype of the Mars-bound helicopter. Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at nearly 3,000 rpm - about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.

"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. It will get to Mars by attaching to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.

JPL Mars Helicopter project manager Mimi Aung said in NASA's statement, "The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet". Therefore, designers "had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be". 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.

"We are ready to take the next big step in exploring the red planet - to bring soil samples from Mars to Earth" - write to NASA.

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Mars is several light-minutes away, so it's impossible to control the helicopter's flight path or landing in real time. Instead, the machine is created to receive pre-programmed commands from Earth, then execute them on its own, always autonomously navigating the environment in real-time.

NASA hopes that the helicopter will fly around 10 feet high and then stay hovering stable for 30 seconds for its firs test flight.

Aerospace Agency of the USA (NASA) and European space Agency (ESA) are working on an ambitious project to deliver to Earth soil and rocks from Mars. The agency said in their statement if the technology demonstration doesn't work, the Mars 2020 mission won't be impacted - but if it does, "helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground level".

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", he added.

If a child sees the Curiosity rover on Mars and hears how slow its progress is over the planet, they might be thinking a somewhat obvious question: why don't we just send a helicopter there?

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