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The Alien Aviator: Mars’ First Helicopter

Eric Warner Staff Writer


NASA finished testing the Mars helicopter destined to be the first aircraft to fly on an alien planet. This alien aviator is set to launch alongside it’s robotic sibling, the recently named Mars rover Perseverance, later this year in July of 2020, despite growing difficulties in society due to the Coronavirus. 

These celestial explorers will be the major forces driving the Mars 2020 Mission of NASA. Perseverance will be sent to investigate an area of the Red Planet that is believed to be an old haven for potential ancient microbial life. The rover is equipped with an entirely new subsystem that includes a coring drill, multiple sample tubes, and two instruments that will be provide high-resolution imaging and three types of spectroscopy (the study of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation), to characterize and identify rocks from a distance. With these tools, Perseverance will collect these soil samples and deposit them at select locations for a future sample-retrieval mission.

The currently unnamed Mars helicopter is not the main focus for the Mars 2020 Missions but is rather more of a low-risk, high-reward kind of experiment. As the first aircraft to fly in an alien atmosphere, the helicopter can demonstrate the potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. If the helicopter is damaged or destroyed during its deployment from Perseverance, the main goal of the mission will not be impacted. If it is successful in its flight, the helicopter can pave the way for a future of low-flying scouts and possibly manned vehicles that can access locations that a rover could never do. 

Once safely landed on the planet, Perseverance will find a suitable setting to deploy the 1.2 meter or 4 feet long wingspan copter and drive to a safe distance. The rover will then relay a command for the copter to begin charging its lithium-ion batteries from solar cells and then begin procedural tests before taking to the alien air. Mars’ atmosphere is only one percent that of Earth’s, consisting mainly of carbon dioxide at 95.32% with nitrogen, argon, oxygen, and carbon monoxide making up a combined total of only 4.51% of the atmosphere. To better suit this helicopter for the alien atmosphere, the engineers at NASA had to make the aviator as light as possible to fly safely in the thin atmosphere. This made the copter weigh around four pounds and it’s twin counter-rotating blades spin at 3,000 rpm, 10 times the rate of a common copter on Earth. If the first flight is successful, the copter will go on to fly around the Red Planet five times with each flight going farther distances incrementally during the mission’s 30-day period. 

This project has not been an easy one to come into fruition. A helicopter flying among the red rocks of Mars has been a dream for Bob Balaram, the chief engineer of the Mars Helicopter, since the 1990’s. After proposing a joint operation with Stanford University and a company called AeroVironment in the 1990’s, the project would not receive funding for another 15 years. New developments in the use of drones and helicopters inspired Balaram to write a new proposal for the Mars 2020 Mission, and after submitting the proposal to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the project was greenlit for funding. Balaram and his team then spent the following years and months working on and perfecting the design of the helicopter and testing it in a vacuum chamber to better simulate the Martian atmosphere. If the helicopter succeeds in its first flight, Balaram will see this momentous event as a, “… kind of a Wright Brothers moment on another planet.” Jim Bridenstine, a NASA administrator, added that, “NASA has a proud history of firsts. 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 Perseverance rover and the Mars Helicopter will launch onboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket in July and are expected to make touchdown on the Red Planet in February 2021.

Campus Lantern
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