NASA's Mars 2020 rover gets saddled with helicopter sidekick
Engineers have attached what could be the first ever helicopter to fly on another world, to NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. The robotic duo is set to be launched into space atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in July next year, and will arrive at their destination on February 18, 2021.
The Mars Helicopter has no scientific goals of its own beyond proving that it is possible to fly an autonomous aircraft through the super-thin Martian atmosphere. The drone carries a single 13-megapixel camera, no science instruments, and weighs in at just under 4 lb (1.8 kg).
The dual-blade, solar-powered helicopter has been subjected to stringent testing designed to assess not only its ability to fly, but also whether it can survive the tumultuous environment of launch and re-entry, not to mention the frigid space environment that it must endure during transit.
NASA engineers attached the helicopter and its delivery system to a plate on the rover’s underbelly. The now integrated drone will remain in its protective cocoon while traveling through interplanetary space, and during re-entry and landing.
The target site for the mission is an impact site known as Jezero Crater. The region boasts ancient terrain formations, some of which are thought to date back 3.6 billion years. An analysis of the landing site could provide clues as to the habitability of ancient Mars and how that world evolved into the one we know today.
The helicopter will be released from the rover between 60-90 Martian days after landing on the Red Planet. Having dropped the drone to the surface, the rover will drive a short distance away, allowing its aerial accomplice to spread its rotors, and prepare to explore its new home.
If successful, the Mars Helicopter is expected to attempt up to five flights over the course of a 30-day period. Each foray will last up to 90 seconds, and could see the drone rise up to 15 ft (4.5 m) above the barren Martian surface.
Should these tests be a success, future crewed and robotic missions could make use of the next generation of autonomous drones to add an aerial element to exploration and path finding tasks. For example, the helicopters could be used to explore regions that would be too hazardous to the wheels of a rover, or that could even put an astronaut’s safety at risk.
Alongside receiving its aerial sidekick, the Mars 2020 rover is also due to get a new name. NASA is inviting kindergarten and school students living in the US to submit essays to rename the rover prior to launch. The deadline is November 1, 2019, and the winner of the competition will be invited to watch the rover launch from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July 2020.
Leading up to the launch you can sign up to become part of the mission by submitting your name to be etched in microscopic size on a chip that will be mounted on the robotic explorer as it trundles across the surface of the Red Planet.
You can also watch a live webcam of the High Bay 1 clean room as engineers put the finishing touches on the 2020 rover.