Mars 2020 is a rover mission scheduled to be launched by NASA in July 2020. Although like previous missions, in which a ground covering rover has been left to explore the planet, this one will be transporting additional cargo. A small, autonomous rotorcraft will be onboard, called the Mars Helicopter, which has been specially designed to explore the planet from a bird’s eye view. This will be the first airborne vehicle to traverse the planet, and scientists are hoping that it will provide some insight into the viability of heavier-than-air vehicles on Mars. The helicopter is also expected to scan the planet for signs of life, find ideal landing zones on its surface, identify potential problems that might arise for future visitors and assist the ground rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, in their geological research.
The Mars Helicopter project began in August 2013, and design and testing lasted four years. The aircraft weighs 1.8 kilograms, has a fuselage the size of a softball and roto blades that move at a speed of 3000 rpm (ten times faster than those of a helicopter on Earth). The team’s design had to make allowances for the difference between our planet and Mars. The helicopter has been equipped with a heating mechanism, to keep it warm in the extremely cold temperatures that Mars experiences at night, as well as solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries. The atmosphere on the Red Planet is one percent of Earth’s so the helicopter will be flying at the equivalent of an altitude of 100,000 feet, as opposed to the highest helicopter flight in our atmosphere being 40,000 feet. To be able to achieve this, the aircraft was designed to be as light as possible while being as strong as possible.
The mission is scheduled to arrive on Mars in February 2021, where the helicopter will be deployed from the transport rover and placed on the ground. After its battery has been charged and several operational tests performed, the transport vehicle will then drive to a safe distance from which to issue commands. Although they will be sent at the speed of light, any instructions from Earth will take several minutes to reach the helicopter. During its first 30 days on Mars, the helicopter will have five different flight missions. The flights will gradually increase in time and distance, with the first lasting 30 seconds, at 20 feet off the ground.
As the first airborne rover on the planet, the Mars Helicopter will also help to determine if the planet can be inhabited, as well as search for signs of life, either past or present. It has been equipped with instruments to identify and collect rock and soil samples, encase them in sealed tubes and leave them on the planet’s surface. NASA hopes to retrieve these samples in future missions, so they can be returned to Earth to be studied.