first_img On Earth, helicopters are a staple of action movies, search-and-rescue missions, medical transport, and aerial traffic reports.On the thin atmosphere of Mars, however, they are a novelty.When NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover lands on the Red Planet in two years, it will be carrying the Mars Helicopter—the first heavier-than-air vehicle to fly from the surface of another world.Weighing a measly 4 lbs, the mini chopper is currently undergoing a “rigorous” verification process certifying it for outer space.“Gearing up for that first flight on Mars, we have logged over 75 minutes of flying time with an engineering model, which was a close approximation of our helicopter,” MiMi Aung, project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.“But this recent test of the flight model was the real deal,” she continued. “This is our helicopter bound for Mars. We needed to see that it worked at advertised.”The aluminum base plate, side posts, and crossbeam around the helicopter protect its landing legs attachment points that will hold it to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover (via NASA/JPL-Caltech)The fourth planet from the Sun and second-smallest in the Solar System, Mars boasts a dangerously thin atmosphere—equivalent to about 100,000 feet above Earth’s surface.No man-made helicopter has reached even half that distance. So you can imagine the difficulty of testing such a device from our terrain.“You can’t go somewhere and find that,” Aung said of the other-worldly conditions. “You have to make it.”The Mars Helicopter team did just that in JPL’s Space Simulator, a 25-foot-wide vacuum chamber where Aung & Co. replaced nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases with carbon dioxide—the chief ingredient in Mars’ atmosphere.Getting the helicopter into the extremely thin atmosphere is only half the battle.“To truly simulate flying on Mars we have to take away two-thirds of Earth’s gravity, because Mars’ gravity is that much weaker,” according to Teddy Tzanetos, test conductor for the Mars Helicopter at JPL.This required a gravity offload system—a motorized lanyard attached to the top of the helicopter to provide an uninterrupted tug, equivalent to the Red Planet’s force of attraction.Despite concerns about how the technology would fare on its first flight, both the gravity offload system and the helicopter “performed perfectly,” Tzanetos said.A second test proved more than 1,500 individual pieces of carbon fiber, flight-grade aluminum, silicon, copper, foil, and foam can work together as a cohesive unit.“The next time we fly, we fly on Mars,” Aung said.The demonstration vehicle used to prove that controlled and sustained flight is feasible in a Martian atmosphere (via NASA/JPL-Caltech)“Watching our helicopter go through its paces in the chamber, I couldn’t help but think about the historic vehicles that have been in there in the past,” she continued, reminiscing over missions from the Ranger Moon probes to the Voyagers to Cassini, “and every Mars rover ever flown.”“To see our helicopter in there reminded me we are on our way to making a little chunk of space history as well,” Aung added.The small aircraft, designed to fly as high as 15 feet above the Red Planet, will enable scientists to remotely explore regions of the world’s surface far from its mothership’s landing site.Scheduled to launch as a technology demonstrator with the Mars 2020 rover next July, the helicopter is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.More on Will Now Take You to ‘Mars on Earth’NASA Boss Says First Person on Mars Will ‘Likely Be a Woman’InSight Probe ‘Pushes Aside’ Stone, Continues Hammering Mars Stay on target NASA Captures ‘Red-Handed’ Avalanche on Mars in Mesmerizing PhotoBest Skywatching Events in September 2019 last_img read more