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Home / Science / Helicopter to accompany NASA's next Mars rover to Red Planet – Spaceflight Now

Helicopter to accompany NASA's next Mars rover to Red Planet – Spaceflight Now

Artistic concept of the Mars Helicopter. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

A flying drone with counter-rotating rotor blades, autonomy on board and a lightweight carbon fiber hull will ride NASA's Mars 2020 mission on the Red Planet, officials said Friday [19659003] The encouraging results from recent ground tests and a boost in funding from a new NASA budget passed by Congress earlier this year helped NASA's leadership decide that the 4-kilogram (8 kilogram) Mars helicopter would be ready in time for launch could be the next rover mission in July 2020.

"You should now see the big smile on my face," said Mimi Aung, project manager for the Mars helicopter mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "It's phenomenal because it's never been done before."

In an interview with Spaceflight Now on Friday, Aung said that nearly five years of design, development and testing convinced NASA's Mars helicopter was ready to go to the Red Planet perhaps more importantly, poses no threat to the Mars 2020 Rover itself as soon as he drops the drone on the Martian surface.

"We have built a progression of prototypes, and the most recent one was our developmental development model," Aung said. "We flew this vehicle in the 25-foot space simulator chamber here at JPL … and we're able to reduce it to a vacuum and replenish it with carbon dioxide to a Martian-like atmospheric density, and we flew into it Surroundings." 19659007] Space Now members can read a transcript of our full interview with Mimi Aung. Become a member today and support our coverage.

The Mars Helicopter will test the viability of air reconnaissance, reconnaissance and scientific exploration of a flying rotorcraft. It will be the first demonstration of takeoffs and landings by one heavier than aircraft in the atmosphere of another planet.

"NASA has a proud history of premieres," said NASA administrator Jim Briddenstine. "The idea of ​​a helicopter flying the sky of another planet is exciting, and the Mars helicopter is promising for our future Mars exploration, reconnaissance and reconnaissance missions."

The engineers will make the flying test bed before taking off Mount on the belly of the Mars 2020 rover on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral. The helicopter will remain on Mars during the seven-month voyage and on the rover's belly as the ship enters, descends and lands.

At the beginning of the rover mission, the controllers will send orders to turn on the rotorcraft. With its four landing legs, the rover drives a safe route before the drone launches the first of up to five test flights.

Officials want to minimize the risk of collision with the rover during one of the helicopter's test flights. The scientists also want to make sure that the dust drifted up by the drone does not hit the rover's instruments.

"We have agreed that everyone feels so comfortable within a range of 100 meters," Aung said about the distance of the rover from the helicopter during the test flights.

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The hull of the Mars helicopter is about the size of a softball. Overall, the rotorcraft is many times larger than the average amateur drone on Earth.

"It's an opposing pair of blades, so there's automatic torque cancellation," Aung said. "These blades, from tip to toe, are 1.2 meters in diameter, and when they are on the ground, from the ground to the legs and from the hull to the top of the rotor system, it is about 0.8 meters (2, 6 feet). "

She said that the size of the rotors was limited to 1.2 meters due to the space available on the belly pan of the Mars 2020 Rovers. The 1.2-meter rotor diameter limits the mass of the helicopter to 4 pounds – 1.8 kilograms – based on the density of the Martian atmosphere.

"The biggest thing is that the atmospheric density on Mars is very thin," Aung said in an interview on Friday. "It's 1 percent of that on Earth, that's about 100,000 feet up here on Earth, the other difference being that gravity is lower on Mars, about 40 percent, depending on how much we can lift . "

The rotors of the Mars helicopter rotate between 2,400 and 2,900 rpm, about ten times faster than a helicopter that flies in the earth's atmosphere. The altitude record for a helicopter on Earth is about 40,000 feet.

"The biggest challenge in a thin atmosphere is that you have to spin much faster and lift less – I would say the secret sauce to fly something like a helicopter on Mars is the vehicle as light as possible, and it has to turn very fast, "said Aung. "To get that combination, to build a vehicle capable of turning and steering fast, as well as having the autonomy required for operating on Mars, while it is still so bright, that it is possible to lift in 1 percent atmospheric density, these are the challenges we overcame. "

The concept of flying a robotic drone around Mars is not new, but Aung said that such a demonstration would make improvements in the Miniaturization of electronics required. stronger, lighter structures.

"Therefore, until recently, with the advancement of standard commercial electronics, computers with the advancement of mobile phone technologies and advances in this field, it has not been possible to build many decades of high energy battery systems, efficient solar cells, inertial measurement units, computing elements," she said. "This makes the thing so easy to build, and we definitely use foam core and carbon fiber so we can have both the strength and the light weight."

The rotorcraft 30-day test campaign It will cover up to five flights, with each hop traveling longer distances of up to several hundred meters and lasting up to 90 seconds, NASA said in a press release.

The first flight of the helicopter will change to a height of about 10 feet or 3 meters, where it will hover for about 30 seconds.

The drone will carry two cameras, one for navigation and another for higher-resolution aerial imagery.

Engineers also developed avionics and sensors for the helicopter to fly autonomously on Mars, without real-time inputs from ground controllers on Earth.

Solar panels on the outside of the helicopter charge its batteries between flights, and signals between the drone and the earth are relayed

Aung said teams at JPL are entrusted with assembling the helicopter, and AeroVironment Inc. with Based in Monrovia, California, the contractor is building the blades and landing of the drone. The entire team counts about 50 people, she said.

Once the helicopter concept is demonstrated on Mars, future rovers – and possibly even astronaut crews – could use the technology more regularly. Air surveillance could look for obstacles on the way of a rover.

"As a technology demonstration, the Mars helicopter is viewed as a high-risk, high-reward project," NASA said in a statement. "Failure to do so will not affect the mission Mars 2020. If it works, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying aircraft and aircraft to get to places that are not accessible by ground."

Based on the Rover and Sky Crane Lander Design of the NASA's Curiosity mission will reach Mars in 2020, the red planet in February 2021. The rover carries instruments to study its geological environment after touchdown, a zoom-enabled camera, sensors to search for organic compounds, and a radar Mapping of the underground structure at the landing site.

Another instrument on the Mars 2020 Rover will try to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, a test to determine whether future astronauts can produce their own breathing air, water and rocket fuel from natural resources on the Red Planet.

Mars 2020 will also collect rock samples and store them in sealed tubes for recovery through a future mission that will bring them back to Earth.

Not all officials were eager to see the Mars helicopter Flying with the Mars 2020 mission.

Ken Farley, the Mars 2020 project scientist at JPL, said on May 3 that the helicopter was a distraction from the scientific goals of the rover.

"I'm not a lawyer for the helicopters, and I do not think the Mars 2020 project was an advocate for the helicopter," Farley told Space News at a meeting of the National Academies Space Studies Board.

"It comes straight from science time," he said May 3. "I personally objected because we work very hard on efficiency and the 30-day work on a technology demonstration does not directly address these goals from a scientific standpoint off. "

But NASA officials at NASA decided that the Mars helicopter demonstration was worth a try.

The budget of the NASA budget for 2018 adopted by President Trump in March included $ 23 million for the Mars helicopter demonstration and provided the resources Gin prepared the vehicle that will go to the Red Planet.

"The exploration of the Red Planet with NASA's Mars helicopter exemplifies a successful combination of science and technology and a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that a powered, sustainable and controlled flight is possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers could prove that this is possible in another world as well."

"The ability "To see clearly what lies behind the next hill is crucial for future explorers," said Zurbuchen in a statement. "We have a great view of Mars from both surface and orbit. With the added dimension of a bird's eye view of a "moscopter", we can only imagine what future missions will accomplish. E-mail the Author

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1 .

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