Flight on Mars


NASA will be sending an unmanned helicopter to Mars on the next Mars Rover mission in 2020.

A small autonomous rotorcraft will be travelling 54.6 million kilometres to the red planet along with the Mars Rover, marking the first time a rotorcraft will have been sent out to space

The helicopter UAV rotorcraft has already been in development for four years, when NASA first started bandying about the idea of an airborne planet-exploration aircraft. Is development started at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 2013.

Four years later, NASA has developed a tiny 1.8 kg automated drone about the size of a baseball with two contra-rotating propellers to drive the aircraft off the surface into the planet’s atmosphere. With Mars’s atmospheric pressure coming it at around 600 pascals, compared to Earth’s average sea-level pressure of 101,325 pascals – the rotors will need to be driven at 3,000 rpm.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “NASA has a proud history of firsts. The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”

The helicopter also features solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a separate heating mechanism to keep the aircraft heated during the evenings, when temperatures can drop to as low as minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 73 degrees Celsius).

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate said: “Exploring the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future.”

“After the Wright Brothers proved almost 115 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world.”

The helicopter will undergo a 30-day flight-test campaign at an unspecified date, when it will fly incrementally further distances, at heights of up to a few hundred metres and durations of up to 90 seconds.

What if it does not take off?

With a project like this, there is a lot that can go wrong. If the Mars Helicopter does not end up being sent to Mars, NASA plans on repurposing the helicopters as low-altitude scout and reconnaissance aircraft to survey areas previously considered out-of-reach for other forms of aircraft or drones.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said Zurbuchen. “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.”

This comes just after the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – the US government’s defence research arm – canned the experimental vtol aircraft the X-Plane – developed in partnership with Boeing Aurora Flight Sciences. Whilst that project was cancelled, the technology used in the program is being transitioned to Aurora’s own air-taxi project.