I visited NASA/JPL-Caltech today, the home of the Mars Rover program.
The following is an interesting and unique addition to the Mars 2020 Rover program.
An artist’s view of the Mars Copter on the Red Planet surface (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The Mars 2020 Rover is scheduled to launch in July 2020, with a unique first—- the Rover will carry and deploy a tiny, autonomous rotorcraft, in a demonstration of the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles in the Mars atmosphere. This is the first time in history that this kind of an air craft will be flown on another planet.
Development of the Mars Copter began in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Mimi Aung is the Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. After four years of design, testing and redesign, the copter weighs just under four pounds (1.8 kilograms). Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will rotate into the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rpm – about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.
The Mars 2020 Rover will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.
During the 2020 landing, the Mars Copter will attempt a controlled flight in Mars' thin atmosphere; if successful it may enable more ambitious missions in the future.
The copter has built-in capabilities needed for operation on Mars, including solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights.
During the Mars 2020 Rover’s descent to the Mars surface, the copter will be attached to the belly pan of the Rover.
On Earth, the highest known height that a helicopter has reached is about 40,000 feet. Since the atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, when the Copter is on the Martian surface, it will be at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up.
See the following video courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.
In order to fly in such a low Mars atmospheric density, the Copter needed to be as light as possible as well as being as strong and as powerful the team could design it.
Once the rover is on the planet’s surface, a good location will be found to deploy the Copter down from the vehicle and place it onto the ground. The Rover then will be driven away from the Copter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands.
After the Copter batteries are fully charged and a bank of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the Mars Copter to take its first autonomous flight.
Since there is no pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, there is no way to use an Earth-based joystick in real time. It was decided that the Copter have an autonomous capability so that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.
There will be a 30-day flight test campaign with up to five flights of incrementally farther flight distances, up to a maximum of a few hundred meters, and longer durations as long as 90 seconds, over a period. On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds.
As a technology demonstration, the Mars Copter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. The Mars 2020 Rover mission will not really be affected if it doesn’t work. 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.
The Mars 2020 Rover will have the ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill; this will be crucial for future explorers. The Mars Copter will provide the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view for future missions.