NASA’s Mars Helicopter completes flight testing
While the United States, Soviet, European, Chinese, Indian and Japanese space agencies have landed spacecraft on an array of planets, asteroids and comets, none have flown in the skies above those worlds—but that may soon change.
If everything goes as currently planned, when NASA’s Mars 2020 rover arrives at the Red Planet in February 2021 it will carry with it a technological first—a helicopter designed to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere.
In late January 2019, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) tested the flight model of the Mars Helicopter under conditions similar to those it is expected to face on the planet’s surface, where nighttime temperatures can be as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius).
“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,” MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a NASA news release. “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.”
NASA said the Mars Helicopter is a technology demonstrator built from more than 1,500 individual pieces of carbon fiber, flight-grade aluminum, silicon, copper, foil and foam. According to the space agency, designing a craft weighing no more than 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) that is capable of flying in the Red Planet’s atmosphere was a challenge for the team and recreating those conditions on Earth presented its own set of challenges.
“The Martian atmosphere is only about one percent the density of Earth’s,” Aung said. “Our test flights could have similar atmospheric density here on Earth—if you put your airfield 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) up. So you can’t go somewhere and find that. You have to make it.”
The Mars Helicopter team used JPL’s Space Simulator, a 25-foot-wide (7.62-meter-wide) vacuum chamber. After creating a vacuum to suck all of the nitrogen, oxygen and other gases from insider the massive chamber, the team injected carbon dioxide, the primary gas of the Martian 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.”
To simulate Martian gravity, the team used a gravity offload system, which NASA said is a motorized lanyard attached to the top of the helicopter to provide a constant upward tug equivalent to two-thirds of Earth gravity. Before the first test flight, the team was concerned about the performance of both the helicopter itself as well as the gravity offload system.
The helicopter made two successful flights in the vacuum chamber on two consecutive days. The flight model logged a grand total of one minute of flight time at an altitude of 2 inches (5 centimeters).
“The next time we fly, we fly on Mars,” Aung said. “Watching our helicopter go through its paces in the chamber, I couldn’t help but think about the historic vehicles that have been in there in the past. The chamber hosted missions from the Ranger Moon probes to the Voyagers to Cassini, and every Mars rover ever flown. To see our helicopter in there reminded me we are on our way to making a little chunk of space history as well.”
The Mars 2020 rover is tasked with using its science instruments to study the geology of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for evidence of ancient life on the planet and test a method for producing oxygen from Martian carbon dioxide. The rover is also expected to gather rock and soil samples and store them for return to Earth by a future mission.
The Mars Helicopter is slated to launch with the Mars 2020 rover atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in July 2020 from Space Launch complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It is expected to arrive at the Red Planet’s Jezero crater in February 2021.
Video courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.