NASA’s Mars helicopter ready for launch

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NASA’s next Mars rover, recently dubbed Perseverance, is currently being prepared for launch at its launch site, the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. To this end, a key piece of equipment – the Mars helicopter – has just been tested for the last time on Earth.

Weighing just under 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms), the helicopter’s fuselage is roughly the same size as a soft ball, and its double blades will pass through the tenuous Martian atmosphere, turning at around 3000 rpm – about ten times more than its terrestrial counterparts.

The little rotorcraft, which will soon be attached to the belly of the rover, is designed to demonstrate whether this technology can be used outside the world. (A similar type of craft is expected to explore Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, over the next decade.)

NASA’s Mars helicopter will be the first plane to fly on another planet. The solar powered dual rotor machine will remain attached to the rover after landing. Once heads of mission can find an acceptable area to deploy the device, they will begin test flights.

The helicopter will make up to five flights in 30 days, each a little further than the previous one. For its first flight, the helicopter will climb 10 feet (3 meters) and hover for approximately 30 seconds.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the direction of NASA’s scientific mission about the spacecraft. “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 of a “marscopter”, we can only imagine what future missions will achieve. “

As part of its pre-launch tests, the machine was positioned inside an airlock and its rotors rotated at up to 50 rpm. The test showed that the device was working as expected and that it would soon be attached to its mobile counterpart. This latest test marked the last time the rotor blades will spin until the rover reaches the Martian surface.

The Mars 2020 rover now has an official name: Perseverance. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

But before the helicopter can help us see Mars in a whole new way, it has to launch out. To do this, he will take a tour of the red planet attached to the Mars Perseverance rover. The duo is scheduled to launch in July atop a Atlas V rocket from the United Launch Alliance.

As the helicopter acts as a scout, Perseverance will look for signs of life on the red planet. It will also help scientists to characterize the climate and geology of the planet and, ultimately, to take samples for a future return to Earth. Some of its on-board instruments will test technologies that will help pave the way for possible human missions to Mars.

Graphic detailing the process for returning the sample. Credit: ESA

NASA is working with the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop a plan on the best way to return Martian samples to Earth. Sampling return missions are estimated for the mid-2020s. ESA was also working with the Russian Space Agency to send its overflight to Mars, but unfortunately, delays in parachuting tests coupled with the epidemic of coronavirus, suspended this mission until 2022.

For the moment, NASA does not anticipate any delay in the Perseverance on Mars mission. The agency is taking steps to ensure the safety of its workers while prioritizing this mission as well as all crewed missions to the space station. If all goes according to plan, the rover (and the helicopter) will arrive on the Red Planet in February 2021.

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