NASA Sending Tiny Helicopter to Fly over Mars in 2021

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NASA's Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency's Mars 2020 rover, now scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the red planet.

NASA will include a small, autonomous helicopter in the agency's upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission, officials announced today (May 11). "The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery and exploration missions to Mars".

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Even with no human pilot, the helicopter drone will be largely autonomous with little input from scientists on Earth but could plot a path ahead of a ground-based rover like Curiosity to make sure the terrain is safe.

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The launch of the Mars helicopter will help make up for sme of the drawbacks of heavier-than-air vehicles as we take steps to further explore the Red Planet.

The helicopter will ride to Mars attached to the rover's belly pan, officials said.

If the Mars Helicopter fails, the overall Mars 2020 mission will not be harmed.

The current plan is for the Mars helicopter to perform five flights over a period of around 30 days, with each successive flight increasing the distance up to an eventual length of 90 seconds and several hundred meters.

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Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's Associate Administrator for science, said that the ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers, and the views from a helicopter flying across Mars will also provide NASA with a stellar public relations tool as it seeks worldwide support for sending humans to the planet in the 2030s or later.

The helicopter's first flight should be a short one: It will climb 10 feet and hover for 30 seconds before returning to the ground.

Knowing what the Mars helicopter is capable of is all well and good, but we won't get an accurate idea of how the craft functions until we see it deployed on the Red Planet itself - a goal which NASA will likely achieve sooner rather than later. 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 car-size rover is equipped with a drill for collecting rock samples, instruments for conducting chemical analyses and seeking potentially habitable environments, an experiment to test the viability of producing oxygen from the planet's carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, and an array of sensors.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", he added. NASA's Launch Services Program, based at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.

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