A helicopter will launch with NASA’s Mars rover in 2020, to become the first heavier-than-air aircraft to operate on another planet, according to BBC News.
A team spent four years designing the helicopter to operate in the atmosphere of Mars, which is 100 times thinner than Earth’s. The fuselage will be roughly the size of a softball, and weigh only 1.8kg (4lbs.) While a Soviet project released balloons into the Venus’s atmosphere in the 80s, this will represent the first heavier-than-air craft, as opposed to balloons and blimps, to travel to another planet, and potentially will be the first aircraft of any kind to launch on another planet.
According to a statement from Mimi Aung, the NASA’s project manager for the Mars Helicopter:
“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up.”
In order to function in the thin atmosphere on Mars, the helicopter’s blades will spin at 3,000 revolutions per minute, or about ten times as quickly as most Earth-bound helicopters, according to NASA.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine remarked:
“The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling…the Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”
The helicopter, while not being officially called a drone, will operate automatically. The 55 million kilometers are too far for a remote signal to travel.
“Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time,” according to Aung, so the craft will “fly the mission on its own.”
The project is considered “high-risk” by NASA, given its unprecedented nature.
A statement from the space agency explained:
“If it does not work, the Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted. If it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel.”
Such a craft could also avoid obstacles such as those faced by the Spirit rover in 2009, which became stuck in sand, running out of power and shutting down.