Science & Technology

NASA Is Putting a Helicopter on Mars

While we're used to a parade of rovers heading to Mars every few years, a helicopter? Never been done before. NASA's going to break that streak. In 2020, it plans to send a flying vehicle to explore destinations far beyond its original landing site. Here's how it's going to work.

Taking to the Air

NASA calls this helicopter a technology demonstration, and for good reason. Flying on Mars is going to be hard. The planet has a thin atmosphere, it's famous for its subfreezing evenings, and Mars also is very far from Earth — meaning that nobody on our own planet could control the helicopter directly, because it would definitely crash.

Engineers are clever people, though, and they've figured out ways to get around this issue. The little machine will include two sets of rover blades that allow it to hover 15 feet (4.5 meters) above Mars. It's not enough to clear a mountain or even a lot of hills, but it's enough to help it swiftly move around the surface. The helicopter is also small (about the size of a softball) and weighs just under four pounds (1.8 kilograms), so it should be easy to lift.

NASA has a conservative flight plan for its new flying vehicle: only five flights, lasting up to 90 seconds each. A press release doesn't exactly say if the little helicopter has artificial intelligence on board to fly around obstacles, although NASA notes that similar technology would be useful to apply in urban environments if a helicopter wants to zoom around buildings.

Related Video: NASA's Sending a Helicopter to Mars in 2020

Why Fly?

NASA has rovers and right now, is operating a stationary lander called InSight on the surface, so why take to the air in the first place? Besides the inherent "cool factor," there are some advantages of an aerial view. When a rover moves around the surface, it looks at everything close up, while a helicopter can give a literal bird's-eye view. That can give context. For example, if a rover happens to see a rock formation suggesting water on the surface, the Marscopter can zoom up in the air to see if there are similar rock formations nearby.

Helicopters can also act as scouts for finding safe routes to make sure that a rover doesn't accidentally wander into a rocky area, a sand trap, or some other zone that could be hazardous. And the best thing is the rover and the helicopter don't necessarily need to move in the same direction. Maybe scientists want to examine two different Mars problems at the same time. Since time on another planet is an expensive proposition, having two "watchers" instead of one allows you to potentially double the science produced. Heck, some teams are even proposing having swarms of "robo-bees" take over portions of the planet and fly around in flocks, with the thinking that multiple eyes are better than one.

This little flyer won't go very far, but in the future, there could be helicopters that fly farther and faster and higher. We can't easily get a rover up a mountain because it could fall down due to the steep tilt; a helicopter (as long as it keeps a safe distance) could steer around the edges and send back pictures of the geology. Helicopters can also zoom above deep craters, the mighty Valles Marineris canyon system, and other parts inaccessible to us during past missions.

The future of flight may be on Mars, and we just can't wait to see liftoff.

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You can't have a softball-sized Mars helicopter yet, but you can have your own rover replica with this Mars Rover Assembly kit! If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Elizabeth Howell March 28, 2019

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