NASA announces 'Mars Helicopter' will be taken to red planet in 2020

NASA is planning to send a helicopter to Mars in July of 2020

The helicopter also contains built-in capabilities needed for operation at Mars, including solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights.

What started as a technology development project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in August 2013, has become The Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft which will travel with the agency's Mars 2020 rover mission, now scheduled to launch in July 2020 and be the first heavier-than-air craft on another world. Once they land, the rover will drop off its stowaway and continue to relay commands from the ground. "The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it's already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) up", Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. Then it will take its very first autonomous flight in Mars and make history. "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", Culberson said.

"The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet (12,200 meters). If it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel".

On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet and hover for about 30 sec.

The Mars Helicopter will be bundled with the U.S. space agency's Mars rover when it launches 2020.

"We don't have a pilot, and Earth will be several light-minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time", Aung said.

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The Mars Helicopter weighs in at almost 4 pounds with a fuselage roughly the size of a softball and blades that spin 10 times the rate of an Earth-bound helicopter.

The primary goal of the Mars 2020 rover is to investigate a to-be-determined ancient environment on Mars that could have hosted past or present-day bacterial life.

"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.

The 1.8 kilogram (3.9 pound) chopper is "a high-risk, high-reward project", the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said in a statement Friday.

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

"I am not an advocate for the helicopter and I don't believe the Mars 2020 project has been an advocate for the helicopter", he added. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve".

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