NASA is planning to send a tiny autonomous helicopter to Mars on its next rover mission to the red planet.
The space agency announced Friday that the helicopter, which is being developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, will be carried aboard the Mars 2020 rover as a technology demonstration to test its ability to serve as a scout and to reach locations not accessible by ground.
"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a news release. "We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter,' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve."
The craft weighs less than 4 pounds, has a fuselage about the size of a softball and twin, counter-rotating blades that will spin at almost 3,000 rpm — a necessity in the thin martian atmosphere.
"The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. 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 up," said Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. "To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be."
The chopper will sport solar-charged lithium-ion batteries.
Flights will be programmed because the distance to Mars precludes real-time commands from Earth.