The first helicopter designed to operate on Mars has completed its first series of certification test flights. Beginning in January of this year, the 4-lb (1.8-kg) flight model of the Mars Helicopter that will be included on NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission was put through its paces in a simulated Martian environment at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
For over half a century, we've been studying the Red Planet from orbit or on the surface, but no one has yet sent an aircraft to Mars. That will change in July 2020 when the Mars 2020 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. It will include the most advanced rover ever sent to Mars, which will collect samples of Martian soil for eventual return to Earth. And strapped to the underbelly of the rover will be the Mars Helicopter technology demonstrator.
But before this can happen, the Mars Helicopter project has to show that the unmanned mini-helicopter is capable of surviving and operating under Martian conditions where the night temperatures can go as low as -130° F (-90° C). It then has to show that it can actually fly for up to 90 seconds in the thin Martian atmosphere, where the pressure is equivalent to that at an altitude of 100,000 ft (30,500 m) on Earth, or two and a half times higher than the altitude record for a conventional helicopter.
To this end, the flight model was placed inside JPL's 25-ft-wide (7.62-m) Space Simulator, which is a vacuum chamber that was depressurized to Martian levels, with the terrestrial air replaced with pure carbon dioxide. To simulate the one-third gravity of Mars, the aircraft was hooked to a motorized tether to take up two-thirds of its weight.
"The gravity offload system performed perfectly, just like our helicopter," says Teddy Tzanetos, test conductor for the Mars Helicopter at JPL Tzanetos. "We only required a 2-in (5-cm) hover to obtain all the data sets needed to confirm that our Mars helicopter flies autonomously as designed in a thin Mars-like atmosphere; there was no need to go higher. It was a heck of a first flight."
According to NASA, the Mars Helicopter, which is made of over 1,500 components fabricated from carbon fiber, flight-grade aluminum, silicon, copper, foil and foam, made its first two flights over the first two days of testing, for a total flight time of one minute to an altitude of 2 in (5 cm).
"Gearing up for that first flight on Mars, we have logged over 75 minutes of flying time with an engineering model, which was a close approximation of our helicopter," says MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter. "But this recent test of the flight model was the real deal. This is our helicopter bound for Mars. We needed to see that it worked as advertised."
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