NASA Tests Mars 2020 Helicopter Under Mars-Like Conditions
Helicopters are a common sight in the skies above Earth, but they may soon come to the red planet. NASA has successfully tested its Mars-bound helicopter drone under Mars-like conditions. The craft hovered just a few inches in the air, but that’s all the team needed. This proves the basic premise is sound, and the next flight could be on Mars.
NSA plans to launch the Mars Helicopter along with the Mars 2020 rover next year. The helicopter is not an integral part of the mission, though. NASA describes it as a technology demonstration, but it will be an impressive one. The Mars Helicopter will ride to Mars attached to the undercarriage of the Mars 2020 rover. Several months after landing on the red planet, the helicopter will take to the skies for a series of 90-second autonomous flights.
Before that can happen, the team had to make sure the helicopter can function on Mars with its thin atmosphere and low temperatures. The closest analog to Mars on Earth would be the atmosphere at an altitude of 100,000 feet. Luckily, NASA has a giant vacuum chamber conveniently located on the surface.
To simulate Mars, the team removed all the Earth atmosphere from the chamber and then pumped in carbon dioxide until it matched Mars’ atmosphere. That’s about 1 percent of Earth’s atmospheric pressure. Next, the team had to do something about all that gravity. Mars has just one-third of Earth’s gravity, which makes it easier for the probe to lift off. There’s no way to change gravity on Earth, but a “gravity offload system” can fake it. That’s the cable you see extending from the top of the helicopter. It tugs upward with a constant force, negating two-thirds of the probe’s mass.
NASA conducted two test flights with a total of about one minute of flight time. The drone reached an altitude of just two inches, but the team says that’s all they need. That proves the helicopter works in Mars-like conditions. The next time it flies could be on Mars in 2021.
The mars 2020 rover will be based on the wildly successful Curiosity rover, which is still chugging along on Mars after nearly seven years. The new rover will conduct geological tests, determine the habitability of the environment, and search for signs of ancient life. The launch is currently on the books for July 2020.