Science/Tech

Mars Helicopter With High-Resolution Color Imager Scheduled Launch Revealed

NASA has a different approach for its next Mars exploration. The space agency has decided to send its first aerial system to the Red Planet. A new autonomous mini-helicopter is scheduled for launch in July 2020, and officials said this will be “opening doors to new types of exploration.”

To date, NASA is only capable of analyzing the planet with rovers restricted to the surface or satellites far above in space. But the new unmanned helicopter is designed to fly and explore in Mars' atmosphere, Space.com reported.

NASA expects the aircraft to arrive on the Red Planet in February 2021 and conduct five short flights to analyze Mars above the ground. 

"We envision helicopters opening doors to new types of exploration on Mars," Håvard Grip, head of flight-control and aerodynamics for the Mars Helicopter, said at a recent presentation with NASA's Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group. 

Grip added NASA could soon use a fleet of the small aerial robots to conduct regional explorations and to get to currently inaccessible areas or biologically sensitive areas. 

The Mars helicopter is only in the size of a softball and weighs 4 lbs. Despite the small size, it features a range of avionics and communications tools, a navigation camera, a high-resolution color imager, "survival heaters" to stay warm through frigid nights on Mars and a rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. 

Mars Helicopter: The Mission and Future

NASA will position the helicopter to Mars aboard the car-size 2020 rover. The helicopter will fly between 330 feet and 3,300 feet in the Martian atmosphere and help its partner rover seek signs of ancient life and collect samples to return to Earth in the future.

Grip said his team has tested the robot many times in Mars-like conditions on Earth. 

"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, said. "For those of us whose research revolves around all things related to flight, that would be a remarkable, historic moment."

If successful, NASA plans to deploy another mini-helicopter to Saturn's moon, Titan, in an effort to investigate and explore the potentially life-supporting moon.

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