NASA Sending a Helicopter to Mars

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars.

The Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency’s Mars 2020 rover mission, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.

“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “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.”

U.S. Rep. John Culberson of Texas echoed Bridenstine’s appreciation of the impact of American firsts on the future of exploration and discovery.

“It’s fitting that the United States of America is the first nation in history to fly the first heavier-than-air craft on another world,” Culberson said. “This exciting and visionary achievement will inspire young people all over the United States to become scientists and engineers, paving the way for even greater discoveries in the future.”

Started in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Mars Helicopter had to prove that big things could come in small packages. The result of the team’s four years of design, testing and redesign weighs in at little under four pounds (1.8 kilograms). Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rpm – about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.

“Exploring the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington. “After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world.”

The helicopter also contains built-in capabilities needed for operation at Mars, including solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights. But before the helicopter can fly at Mars it has to get there. It will do so attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.

“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,” said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. “To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.”

Once the rover is on the planet’s surface, a suitable location will be found to deploy the helicopter down from the vehicle and place it onto the ground. The rover then will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands. After its batteries are charged and a myriad of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight into history.

“We don’t have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time,” said Aung. “Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.”

The full 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally farther flight distances, up to a few hundred meters, and longer durations as long as 90 seconds, over a period. On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds.

As a technology demonstration, the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. 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.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said Zurbuchen. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

Mars 2020 will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.

The 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. 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.

The Mars 2020 Project at JPL in Pasadena, California, manages rover development for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.

For more information about NASA’s Mars missions, go to:

https://www.nasa.gov/mars

Editor’s Note: For reasons that I can’t quite fathom, NASA announced this news late on a Friday afternoon. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine actually tweeted it as breaking news literally right in the middle of the Falcon 9 Block 5 launch.

For anyone wondering what the timing of this startled all the media folks on Twitter (and I’m looking at you, dueagle), here’s a brief synopsis.

  1. Late Friday afternoon is for dumping news you do not want people to hear about. Examples include a dump of embarrassing documents that you’ve been fighting in the courts to not release. Or the resignation of a White House aide under an ethical cloud. Stuff like that.
  2. The people who are paying attention were focused on the Falcon 9 Block 5 launch. Not a good idea to step on that news.
  3. Something this awesome should be announced early in the week when NASA can give this news the rollout it deserves and people are actually paying attention.

  • therealdmt

    Cool. Like an old Popular Mechanics article come to life 🙂

    Now let’s get that Titan Sub I’ve been reading about for 30 years 🙂

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    This is really strange. Off the cuff, that thing is going to need hundreds of watts to fly. Those hops will be short. Will a rover with a hopper that lands back on the rover be able to scout out routes in rough terrain in a way that cannot be done with orbital imaging? Well we’re going to find out. I afraid this sounds like a bit of a stunt, a early 60’s Soviet style stunt. This kind of capability makes sense when you have people around to upkeep and repair the drones. I think it’s a bit ahead of its time and not in a good way, but let’s see what comes of it in two years.

  • Search

    It isn’t mentioned in the hamfisted press release (ffs can our elected officials get away from tweeting important events as if they were in 6th grade?!), but the copter has its own solar cell and recharges itself between hops. Now what I don’t know is can it dump its data only to the rover via RF or can it also do so to overhead pass of MRO etc. Probably doesn’t have the power for a direct to earth transmit. Obviously the JPL engineers had very restricted mass and volume to work with due to having to package into the rover.

  • WhoAmI

    Relative to the solar cells, I wonder if the main reason for the average of 7.5 day gaps between flights is to give the tiny solar panels a chance to fully recharge the batteries while also using some of the power to keep the critical components warm during the Martian nights. Does it really take that long, or is it more for caution to analyze all the data of the previous flight before planning the next one?

    The restricted mass (and as a result, power) would eliminate a satellite viable radio and antenna when they have the mission critical rover available to relay the data with a relatively low power and weight solution.

  • Larry J

    Based on model helicopter design, it won’t take hundreds of watts for a very lightweight helicopter to fly on Mars. The gravity there is about 38% of Earth’s gravity, which reduces the power requirement. Electric motors aren’t affected by the low air density but the rotors will have to be larger. The coaxial rotor design means all power is used to generate lift, which is efficient. They can test the rotors in a vacuum chamber with the air density reduced to the same as it is on Mars.

    The biggest takeaway from this article is that this is a high risk test. If it works, cool. If it doesn’t work, they will learn some valuable lessons and the rover’s mission won’t be impacted in any way.

  • Tom Billings

    I am interested in whether those solar cells are integral to the rotor’s top surfaces. There are reasons to do that, and reasons to avoid it, and I wonder which are dominating. Powered flight on Mars is eventually going to be one of the best places to test beamed power from orbit, with the rotors again being a good place to put the needed rectifying antenna. Though that’s for later, the rotors still might be useable now as antenna surface to send data to an orbiting relay like MRO.

    As to the timing of the announcement, I suspect that fewer and fewer in the current administration are enamored of getting good press, because they *will*not* get that. This is especially so when the PI on the Mars 2020 project already announced he was against this, because it doesn’t contribute directly to mission science goals. That attitude is not uncommon in SMD projects, and in the past has pushed engineering tests like this one into flying *only* on designated technology demonstration missions.

    Of course, technology demonstration missions going to the surface of Mars are non-existent, because Mars has been a totally science-justified mission set. If settlement were at all politically viable, then there might be different, but settlement justifications are still anathema in Congress. So we will far more likely see most technology demonstration done by payloads from BFRs.

  • duheagle

    Generally good analysis. Mr. B seems to be in a hurry so he’s fast-tracking stuff that’s been heretofore progressing at a slow amble. I think there’s also a not so subtle subtext here to the effect of, “I don’t care who you think you are, I’m the one who gets to say now. If you don’t like it, don’t let the door smack you in the britches on the way out.” It looks to me as though Bridenstine is in the early phases of lining up all of NASA long-time chair patrollers, issuing them 60-pound packs and sending them on a timed 10-mile run. There will be casualties. There should be casualties.

    My main cavil is I think you seriously overestimate the antipathy to space settlement in the U.S. Congress. Culberson, Rohrabacher and a lot of other high-mileage types seem more than willing to back what is shaping up to be the Trump/Bridenstine play.

    I still think Elon’s people will get to Mars well ahead of NASA’s – unless he deigns to give some of the latter a ride – but it’s hard, at this point, to see how his efforts are likely to encounter any headwinds from the Trump administration.

  • duheagle

    Indeed, lets. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find something along those lines appearing on Bridenstine’s “to-do” list before very long. He seems to be a man in a hurry.

  • duheagle

    To paraphrase Fred Ward as Gus Grissom in The Right Stuff, “The problem ain’t cuff, it’s duff!” Bridenstine seems bent on getting NASA as a whole off its duff by any means necessary.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Yeah, I plugged and chugged into a basic hover relationship for a 1kg drone with a 1m rotor in kg m s in a ‘Viking’ site atmosphere and it’s 20 watts. So if it comes in at > 5kg it’s still going to be 100+ watts. But if they can keep it light and small that might come out as a useful thing, but still very restricted.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    The opposition to colonization will die with our generations. I interact with undergraduates even non science types. They like Space X and Tesla, once the opera starts they’ll pick it up. And a lot of people you consider your uniter-mensch/fraudster enemy will be picked up for the ride. The fight will be whether colonial life will be along the lines of “Outland” or not, and if so for how long. That’ll be the left – right split.

  • Paul451

    You know all of the recent announcements are decisions that were already made? If anything, NASA seems to be dumping a bunch of things in just before Bridenstine can actually have any influence, so he is forced to accept them and defend them. Not so early, he can treat it as “the previous administration”, not so late that he is required to sign off on it.

    It seems unusually sophisticated for NASA, and the response from Bridenstine surprising naive for a politician.

  • duheagle

    Hey, who doesn’t love some Sean Connery? But Outland makes no more socio-economic sense than did Elysium or Alien or The Expanse or any other lefty sci-fi dystopia predicated on quasi-totalitarian corporations as the bad guys. Personally, I suspect people with lefty entitlements mentalities will be pretty aggressively screened out as candidates for space employment if – as seems inevitable – it is business that is soon conducting the bulk of space operations, including exploration. It’s easy to imagine that any SJW types who do slip through and start berating their hab-mates about “microaggressions” and such will quickly find themselves outside the airlock without benefit of EVA suit.

  • duheagle

    If it makes you feel better to think that, be my guest.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I LIKED “Outland”. I agree most of the dystopias are total bunk. But the way wealth is stripped from the individual in “Outland” is achievable in space. I think the more relevant history for social and political malfunction in space colonies is to be had in the history of Svalbard/Spitzbergen (It’s a fascinating subject I think it has some solutions to allowing for national appropriation of land while avoiding some of the pressures that can lead to war such as the Outer Space Treaty tries to avoid.) The real social danger in space will come from lack of property for the individual and the overbearing pressures for the corporation to own what on Earth are considered commons (like the air you breath). The pressures that could lead to descent into a North Korean style politics will be very real unless a minimum of property rights and tooling capabilities can be maintained by individuals, how you do that, I have no idea only that it’ll need to be done to avoid the kind of crazy power differentials that can show up.

  • SamuelRoman13

    At least when I logged in I did not have to identify a lot of hills. Instant I like. But I guess a robot commenting using my name would be bad.
    It will be great to have a drone on Mars. Will FAA require registration like I have to do for any RC over 8oz.? I hope to see that on it, The quad-copter I have nearly flies itself. A drone does fly itself. So a computer will not have a problem. I hope they find a clear space with no rocks. Also they should not assume it will not hit the rover. 4lbs might damage something. There is a law that says if it can go wrong, it will. The rover will have to be beyond the range of the copter. It will be fun.

  • Vladislaw

    I thought it was coming in at 1.8 so not even 2.2 of a cubesate.

  • windbourne

    I’m amazed that we are not sending H2 balloons there. While we could control them I say skip that . Simply launch 1 balloon a day for 10-20 days.
    These could do a lot of close mapping.