If all goes well, in late July, NASA will do something it’s never done before. The agency will launch a new mission to Mars with the aim of landing a small helicopter on the surface that will perform several test missions to see if we can fly on the surface of the Red Planet.
This is not an easy task, but it will be massively historic.
“This is very analogous to the Wright brothers moment, but on another planet,” MiMi Aung, the project manager of the Mars helicopter told the New York Times.
The helicopter will be aboard the Perseverance, the fifth robotic rover NASA has sent to Mars. The copter and the rover were both designed and built at at at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. The project has been in development over the past six years.
If successful, the small helicopter will initiate a new era for robotic exploration, with the opportunity to get an aerial view of Mars and possibly other worlds in the solar system.
Flying on Mars is not the same as doing so here on earth. There is little atmosphere on Mars, and so taking off requires more power and larger helicopter blades than here on earth. In fact, the atmosphere on the red planet is just 1/100th as dense as Earth’s. Scientists say that flying on Mars is the same as flying at an altitude of 100,000 feet on Earth. That’s three Mount Everests. No helicopter on earth has ever flown higher than 45,000 feet.
JPL scientists say that the project would have been impossible just 10 years ago, but a revolution in the miniaturization of electronics, high-powered batteries and lightweight materials for rotor blades has made the new mission possible.
It took several iterations and experiments to get the copter to lift off in s straight line inside a specially-designed chamber that simulated the Mars atmosphere.
Over 30 days, the helicopter will make up to five flights. For most of the time, however, the copter will remain still, waiting for solar panels to recharge the batteries.
The first is to go up about a few feet and hover for up to 30 seconds, then land. Subsequent flights will be longer, higher, farther. The plan is to test the copter on several short liftoffs on Mars, reaching perhaps just a few feet above the dusty plain where it will be released from the Perseverance. On the fifth flight, assuming all systems are go, the copter will lift off to 15 feet and fly out about 500 feet and come back. Two cameras will help the copter navigate and the flight will last a minute and a half.
This is an extremely exciting time for JPL’s planetary exploration project. The Juno project has been sending back stunning images of Jupiter, including strange hexagonal cloud formations at the poles of the giant planet.
Also, check out one of our recent features on the California scientific illustrator David Goodsell whose watercolor painting of the coronavirus is “beautiful, but deadly”.