The Mars 2020 mission, or the Red Planet rover mission, scheduled to launch in July of that year, will include the Mars helicopter, which NASA described as a "small, autonomous rotocraft". It will do so attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover. But in today's announcement, Bridenstine said the helicopter would build on NASA's "proud history of firsts". Those commands will take several minutes to reach the helicopter from Earth, so it will need some autonomous capabilities to make sure it can fly on its own, without anyone controlling it in real time.
The Mars Helicopter will bear no resemblance to the ones that hover nearly constantly in the skies above Los Angeles and tracking vehicle chases.
It is specifically created to fly in the atmosphere of Mars, which is 100 times thinner than Earth's.
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Existing Mars vehicles have been wheeled devices, which have to navigate around many obstacles in their path and have been confined to fairly large open spaces on the surface of Mars.
As a technology demonstration, the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. "The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars". Once they land, the rover will drop off its stowaway and continue to relay commands from the ground. It has a fuselage that's about the size of a softball, solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through Martian nights that can get far colder than 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
Because Mars' atmospheric density is only 1 percent of Earth's, NASA says the drone's twin, counter-rotating blades would have to turn at almost 3,000 rpm - about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.
On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet and hover for about 30 sec.
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If it fails, it will not impact the Mars 2020 mission.
Mars has only 38 percent of Earth's gravity, but its atmosphere is vanishingly thin compared to Earth's, so the biggest challenge was to design a vehicle that is both light and powerful enough, according to Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL.
Mars 2020 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.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said the demonstration could blaze a trail for future robotic scouts on Mars. The rover also will cache rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth.
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The undertaking began in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.