A rendering of NASA's autonomous Mars Helicopter on the Martian Surface. (Nasa/JPL-CalTech)
A rendering of NASA’s autonomous Mars Helicopter on the Martian Surface. (Nasa/JPL-CalTech)

In July 2020, NASA will send a new rover to Mars and in its belly will ride a helicopter capable of flight in the Red Planet’s unforgiving, low-density atmosphere.

Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) tested a smaller-scale model of their Mars Helicopter in their space simulator and successfully conducted two test flights in Martian conditions.

The Mars Helicopter project was announced in May 2018 as a way to demonstrate the “viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet,” according to NASA.

“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said Jim Bridenstine, the agency’s administrator. “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.”

Though the unmanned Mars-copter only clocked one minute of total flight time in NASA’s Space Simulator at an eye-popping altitude of two inches off the ground, the JPL team said they have all the data they need.

“The next time we fly, we fly on Mars,” said JPL Mars Helicopter project manager MiMi Aung.

But two inches in the simulator, which was also used to test the Voyager and Cassini space probes as well as every Mars rover that has gone to space, is a significant achievement in Martian conditions. The atmosphere on Mars has only one percent the density of Earth’s, so a flight that near the ground surface of Mars equates to flying at an altitude of 100,000 feet on Earth. The current world record altitude for rotorcraft, achieved in 2002 by Fred North in a Eurocopter AS350B2, is 42,500 feet.

Mars also has just 38 percent of Earth’s gravity, which makes flight easier — though this effect is not as significant. JPL scientists are able to simulate the lower gravitational force with a motorized lanyard “gravity offload system” that tugs at the helicopter as it hovers above the ground.

The Mars Helicopter will also need to survive and function in Martian temperature, including nights as cold as minus 135 degrees Fahrenheit.

The tech demonstrator is expected to land on Mars in February 2021 and will be capable of three minutes of flight per day, relying on solar panels to charge its battery-powered coaxial rotors. JPL scientists chose a coaxial design to eliminate the need for a tail rotor, saving precious cargo space in the rover.

If the unmanned Mars-copter successfully carries out its mission, it will pave the way for future space UAVs, which could play a critical scouting role as humans continue to explore our cosmic neighborhood and push the physical boundaries of our technology.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “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.”