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NASA plans to send first-ever mini-helicopter to Mars

12 May 2018

This small helicopter weighing 1.8 kilograms would be remote-controlled.

NASA announced May 11 that it will fly a small helicopter as a technology demonstration on its next Mars rover, despite concerns from some on the project that it could be a distraction.

Traveling at the speed of light, it'll still take several minutes for any commands sent from Earth to reach the helicopter, so the flying rover will have to be at least partially autonomous as it provides scientists and other autonomous vehicles with the first long-term bird's-eye view of the planet. The announcement just came today from NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former congressman who was recently appointed to the position without having any background in science.

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We have rovers on Mars' surface, and orbiters like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter floating around the planet, but we don't have anything flying around the surface of Mars right now.

The Mars Helicopter's development began in 2013 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. Once there, it will use solar cells to charge its batteries and operate a built-in heater to combat frigid nighttime temperatures. The atmosphere at Mars is very thin; about 1 percent of Earth's. It will be attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover, a wheeled robot that aims to determine the habitability of the Martian environment, search for signs of ancient life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers.

BBC notes that existing vehicles on Mars have been wheeled ones bound on the planet's surface, which is prone to running into obstacles. After placing the helicopter on earth, the rover is going to be told to drive to a safe space to relay orders.

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Due to the atmospheric difference between Earth and Mars, the helicopter will be the equivalent of 100,000 feet in the air at home when it is on the ground on Mars.

The full 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally farther flight distances, up to a few hundred meters, and longer durations as long as 90 seconds, over a period. "We have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own", Aung said. NASA acknowledges the challenge, saying this is a "high-risk, high-reward project".

We can wait for what the Mars 2020 mission will explore the Red Planet.

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According to Bridenstine, the success of the "marscopter" may enable more ambitious missions in the future. The launch will take place at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rover is created to carry out geological reports also to ascertain the habitability of this Martian environment, NASA explained.

NASA plans to send first-ever mini-helicopter to Mars