02:57Black Hawk on Red Planet: NASA to Deploy Helicopter on Mars

Enlarge Image This illustration shows what the Mars Helicopter might look like as it readies for takeoff.                  NASA

The next vehicle NASA is sending to Mars nestles somewhere between a rover and a satellite, at least in terms of altitude.

NASA will include a small, autonomous helicopter in the agency's upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission, officials announced today (May 11).

The remote Mars Helicopter, created to carry flight in the thin Martian setting with twin counter-rotating bladesthat weighs about four pounds (1.8 kilograms), with a fuselage the size of a softball, NASA explained.

"To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be", said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the statement. The helicopter contains a heating mechanism to keep it warm during frigid nights and solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries.

After placing the helicopter on the ground, the rover will be directed to drive to a safe distance to relay commands.

If Mars Helicopter works, it will constitute another space first for NASA, the first flight on another world. "The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars".

The launch team on earth will be able to send commands to the helicopter via the rocket - but it is too far away from them to control it directly.

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For its trip to Mars, the helicopter will be packed on the underside of the rover.

What will the Mars Helicopter do?

The helicopter is meant to show the viability and usefulness of aircraft on Mars, NASA explained, together with potential roles because of low-flying scout or to attain areas inaccessible out of the floor. The helicopter will have twin, counter-rotating blades which will power through the thin Martian atmosphere at nearly 3,000 rpm - about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.

The helicopter will have a relatively short mission, about 30 days in total.

If the mission proves successful, helicopters will be used in future missions to planets to access locations not reachable by ground travel.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, in the statement.

Both projects are considered "high-risk, high-reward" technology demonstrations, meaning that neither of the two missions will be impacted if the CubeSats and the "marscopter" fail.

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