NASA's Mars helicopter testing enters final phase

NASA's Mars helicopter testing enters final phase
This image of the flight model of NASA's Mars Helicopter was taken on Feb. 14, 2019, in a cleanroom at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The aluminum base plate, side posts, and crossbeam around the helicopter protect the helicopter's landing legs and the attachment points that will hold it to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Mars Helicopter flight demonstration project has passed a number of key tests with flying colors. In 2021, the small, autonomous helicopter will be the first vehicle in history to attempt to establish the viability of heavier-than-air vehicles flying on another planet.

"Nobody's built a Mars Helicopter before, so we are continuously entering new territory," said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Our flight model—the actual vehicle that will travel to Mars—has recently passed several important tests."

Back in January 2019 the team operated the in a simulated Martian environment. Then the helicopter was moved to Lockheed Martin Space in Denver for compatibility testing with the Mars Helicopter Delivery System, which will hold the 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) spacecraft against the belly of the Mars 2020 rover during launch and interplanetary cruise before deploying it onto the surface of Mars after landing.

As a technology demonstrator, the Mars Helicopter carries no science instruments. Its purpose is to confirm that powered flight in the tenuous Martian atmosphere (which has 1% the density of Earth's) is possible and that it can be controlled from Earth over large interplanetary distances. But the helicopter also carries a camera capable of providing high-resolution color images to further demonstrate the vehicle's potential for documenting the Red Planet.

Future Mars missions could enlist second-generation to add an aerial dimension to their explorations. They could investigate previously unvisited or difficult-to-reach destinations such as cliffs, caves and deep craters, act as scouts for human crews or carry small payloads from one location to another. But before any of that happens, a test vehicle has to prove it is possible.

Credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

In Denver, the Mars Helicopter and its delivery system were checked to make sure that the electrical connections and mechanisms that linked the flight vehicle with its cradle fit snuggly. Then, while still mated, the duo endured the sorts of vibrations they will experience during launch and in-flight operations. The thermal vacuum portion of the testing introduced them to the kinds of extreme temperatures (down to -200 degrees Fahrenheit, or -129 degrees Celsius) that they will encounter in space and on Mars and that could cause components to malfunction or fail.

The Mars Helicopter returned to JPL on May 11, 2019, for further testing and finishing touches. Among the highlights: A new solar panel that will power the helicopter has been installed, and the vehicle's rotor blades have been spun up to ensure that the more than 1,500 individual pieces of carbon fiber, flight-grade aluminum, silicon, copper, foil and aerogel continue to work as a cohesive unit. Of course, there's more testing to come.

"We expect to complete our final tests and refinements and deliver the helicopter to the High Bay 1 clean room for integration with the rover sometime this summer," said Aung, "but we will never really be done with testing the helicopter until we fly at Mars."

The Mars Helicopter will launch with the Mars 2020 rover on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in July 2020 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. When it lands in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021, the rover will also be the first spacecraft in the history of planetary exploration with the ability to accurately retarget its point of touchdown during the landing sequence.

The 2020 rover will conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers. In another first, scientists will use the instruments aboard the rover to identify and collect samples of rock and soil, encase them in sealed tubes, and leave them on the planet's surface for potential return to Earth on a future Mars mission.


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More information: For more information about the mission, go to mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/
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Jun 07, 2019
As a technology demonstrator, the Mars Helicopter carries no science instruments.


That is NOT justification for carrying no science instruments. Maybe the real justification was to save weight, costs, and/or development time, etc. Otherwise, just because this is the first Mars helicopter does not mean it has to be scientifically useless. Imagine if NASA always took that lousy attitude, then very little would have been accomplished over the last 60 years.

Jun 07, 2019
That is the science being performed - to test the viability of airborne craft.

Jun 07, 2019
That is NOT justification for carrying no science instruments.

Agreed, if we want to see how a helicopter/drone performs in a 600Pa environment we can do that in a partial vacuum here on Earth. Also, we've already proven we can control machinery on Mars from Earth, so their funding could be better used on actual science, not proving this concept.

Jun 07, 2019
That is NOT justification for carrying no science instruments
-And how would YOU know what the proper priorities are for a space mission mark? You really think reading a press release gives you enough info to make that decision?
Maybe the real justification was to save weight, costs, and/or development time, etc. Otherwise, just because this is the first Mars helicopter does not mean it has to be scientifically useless
Maybe maybe maybe. And how would YOU know that the thing is scientifically useless, after reading just one press release?
Agreed, if we want to see how a helicopter/drone performs in a 600Pa environment we can do that in a partial vacuum here on Earth. Also, we've already proven we can control machinery on Mars from Earth, so their funding could be better used on actual science, not proving this concept
You 2 should realize that guessing on a popsci site does not make you real scientists, right?

Jun 07, 2019
My two cents: Mars, the Moon, human space travel - its pointless nonsense of most appeal to the perversly undying adolescent in us. The main outcome of all this science-like activity is the rendering of near-earth space into a rubbish dump. Its what we're good at.

Its well past time this intellectual energy was directed into something useful like preserving biodiversity.

Jun 07, 2019
My two cents: Mars, the Moon, human space travel - its pointless nonsense of most appeal to the perversly undying adolescent in us. The main outcome of all this science-like activity is the rendering of near-earth space into a rubbish dump. Its what we're good at.

Its well past time this intellectual energy was directed into something useful like preserving biodiversity.


All research is useful.

Jun 07, 2019
bl999, eventually the benefits of unlimited materials, energy and real estate will be apparent to all. More subtly, it may offer opportunities to build better worlds populated with people who are more resistant to self-destruction. We are only at the beginning and have a lot to learn and do.

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