That will change in 2020 once NASA sends an autonomous flying "rotorcraft" to Mars to go exploring where no rover can check out on foot (or on wheels), which is naturally named the Mars Helicopter. The announcement just came today from NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former congressman who was recently appointed to the position without having any background in science. If successful, it would be the first time humanity has deployed a helicopter on another planet.
"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", says Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager.
The Mars Helicopter's development began in 2013 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.
Tipping the scales at a little under four pounds (1.8 kilograms), the Mars Helicopter is quite small - its fuselage is no bigger than a softball, NASA pointed out.
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Under development at JPL since August 2013, the Mars Helicopter uses electrically-driven counter-rotating blades specially created to handle the thin Martian air thanks to their wide span and rotation of 3,000 rpm, which is 10 times faster than their Earth counterparts.
Solar cells will charge the helicopter's lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism should keep it from freezing in the cold Martian nights. In tests he successfully rose to a height in excess of 12 km, this means that on Mars the Mars Helicopter can fly at an altitude of over 30 km.
The helicopter has to contend with the thin Martian atmosphere, so it has to be both lightweight and powerful.
For its trip to Mars, the helicopter will be packed on the underside of the rover.
The Mars Helicopter will hitch a ride on the Mars 2020 rover and become the first aircraft to fly on an alien planet. Controllers from Earth will deliver commands to the helicopter to take its first autonomous flight after its batteries are charged and tests are conducted. NASA views the copter as a "high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration", it said. If it does not work, the Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted. After the rover lands on Mars in 2021, NASA will use the spacecraft's cameras to scan the ground of the planet, find a suitable flat place to set the tiny helicopter down. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve".