NASA’s Mars Helicopter, designed to fly in thin atmosphere and low gravity, has successfully completed flight tests. The mission is scheduled to launch in July next year and land on the Red Planet in February 2021. The Mars Helicopter weighs about 1.8 kilograms and has a body about the size of a softball. It has a small solar panel, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The majority of the testing the flight model is going through had to do with demonstrating how it can operate on Mars, including how it performs at Mars-like temperatures, NASA said in a statement.
The helicopter has to function in extremely cold temperatures, including nights with temperatures as low as minus 90 degrees Celsius.
A few months later, it will be deployed and test flights will begin—the first from the surface of another world, NASA said.
“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,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US.
“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,” said Aung.
While flying helicopters is commonplace here on Earth, flying hundreds of millions of kilometers away in the thin Martian atmosphere is something else entirely.
Creating the right conditions for testing here on Earth presents its own set of challenges.
“The Martian atmosphere is only about one per cent the density of Earth’s,” said Aung.
“Our test flights could have similar atmospheric density here on Earth—if you put your airfield 30,480 meters up. So, you can’t go somewhere and find that. You have to make it,” she said.
The team created a vacuum that sucks out all the nitrogen, oxygen and other gases from the air inside the mammoth cylinder. In their place the team injected carbon dioxide, the chief ingredient of Mars’ atmosphere.
“Getting our helicopter into an extremely thin atmosphere is only part of the challenge,” said Teddy Tzanetos, test conductor for the Mars Helicopter at JPL.
“To truly simulate flying on Mars we have to take away two-thirds of Earth’s gravity, because Mars’ gravity is that much weaker,” said Tzanetos.
To generate enough lift, the Mars Helicopter sports two stiff rotors that measure 3.9 feet (1.2 m) long — pretty much as big as the team could make them, Grip said.
"The Mars Helicopter's initial flight will represent that planet's version of the Wright brothers' achievement at Kitty Hawk and the opening of a new era," Susan Gorton, manager of NASA's Revolutionary Vertical Lift Technology project, which has been working with the Mars Helicopter team, said in a statement last week.