NASA is sending something to Mars that no one before has, a helicopter.
Meanwhile, NASA added that the next Mars rover which will play a crucial part in the 2020 mission is in the midst of assembly, where it will spend its operational life searching for organic compounds to see if life ever flourished on the Red Planet.
While Russian missions to Venus dropped balloons into its atmosphere, this helicopter will be both the first powered flying machine and the first human-designed heavier-than-air vehicle to visit another planet.
As for how feasible it is to build the drone, NASA's director of robotic Mars exploration Jim Watzin said that it has performed nearly 90 minutes of testing using a model within a Martian atmosphere test chamber. If the helicopter tips over during landing or falls out of the sky, it won't be possible to fix it from millions of miles away. However, it's no secret that these rovers are not the most agile of tools nor are they the easiest to maneuver through the rocky terrains of Mars. The Mars Helicopter weighs just under four pounds, with a fuselage about as big as a softball.
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.
The Mars Helicopter's development began in 2013 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.
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NASA will send a helicopter to fly on NASA's next red planet rover mission in July 2020.
The helicopter's twin, counter-rotating blades will rotate at nearly 3,000 rpm - about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth. "We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery and exploration missions to Mars". The chopper will fly through the Martian air to observe if vehicles can levitate on Mars, which has an atmosphere 100 times thinner than on Earth. It will get to Mars by attaching to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.
Because it takes at least four minutes for light to travel to Mars from Earth (a delay that can grow to half an hour depending on how far the two planets are relative to each other), remote controlling the helicopter is out of the question.
Because of its huge distance - Earth will be several minutes away, traveling at the speed of light - Aung said that direct control will be impossible. On its first flight, the vehicle will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters) and remain there for 30 seconds before landing. With each successive flight, the duration (90 seconds max) and distance covered will be increased (up to a few hundred meters).
But before any of that happens, the rover has to be sent to and deployed on the red planet.
But if this endeavor truly takes off (sorry) it could add a valuable and revealing new dimension to space exploration missions down the road. If the program works as NASA expects, the agency would have a whole new way to explore the Martian surface.