NASA engineers have managed to fly a helicopter in conditions similar to those on Mars. The American space agency wants to send the small helicopter to the red planet next year with the Mars 2020 Rover mission.
The density of the atmosphere on Mars is about one percent of that on Earth. To test the 1.8-kilogram helicopter on Earth, the researchers would have to fly the device at an altitude of 30,480 meters, which is far from practical. NASA therefore chose to simulate the conditions on Mars in the JPL Space Simulator in Pasadena, California. Two successful test flights took place in this simulator on different days, NASA says on its website.
The atmosphere of Mars not only has a different density than that on Earth, the temperature is also much lower; to ninety degrees Celsius below zero. To simulate the conditions on Mars, the JPL Space Simulator, a cylinder with a diagonal of 7.62 meters, was first evacuated. The nitrogen and oxygen were then replaced by carbon dioxide, the main component of the Martian atmosphere.
If all goes according to plan, the Mars helicopter will be launched in July 2020, along with the Mars 2020 Rover. The landing on Mars, with the helicopter hanging under the ‘belly’ of the rover, is planned for February 2021. The first test flight on the red planet, in which the helicopter remains in the air for up to one and a half minutes, will only follow a few months later.
After landing on Mars, the helicopter mainly serves as a test case for future UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles. The Rover 2020, in turn, will study the geology of the planet, including by collecting samples through drilling.