NASA plans to send a helicopter to Mars

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The chopper will fly through the Martian air to observe if vehicles can levitate on Mars, which has an atmosphere 100 times thinner than on Earth.

While Russian missions to Venus dropped balloons into its atmosphere, this helicopter will be both the first powered flying machine and the first human-designed heavier-than-air vehicle to visit another planet. With an atmosphere that is 100 times thinner than what we see here on Earth, the ability to create a Mars helicopter was a massive undertaking - but NASA has been working towards this goal in one capacity or another since 2013, making changes as needed in order to produce a craft that will get the job done.

The Mars Helicopter is a technology demonstration that will travel to the Red Planet with the Mars 2020 rover.

Solar cells will help the Mars Helicopter charge its lithium-ion batteries, and it's equipped with a heating mechanism to survive frigid Martian nights. It has twin, counter-rotating blades that will slice the air at almost 3,000 revolutions per minute (rpm), which, according to NASA, is "about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth".

"The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet [12,000 meters]", MiMi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, said in the statement. Therefore, designers "had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be". If all goes according to plan, the craft will make four more flights over the course of a 30-day test campaign, each progressively longer and more complex than the first. On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (three meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds.

NASA describes the Mars Helicopter as a high-risk, high-reward project.

Dubbed the Mars Helicopter, the rotorcraft is hitching a ride to the Red Planet as part of NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission. However, if it does work, helicopters may have a real future in interplanetary exploration.

"If we were to fly the helicopter as a tech demonstration on something like Mars 2020, we would envision a very small number of flights to prove the aerodynamic and handling characteristics, and the concept of operations, and that would be the end of the demonstration", Watzin said.

In five decades of exploring Mars, NASA has sent orbiters, landers and rovers to explore Earth's neighbor. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve". The six-wheeled rover will hunt for signs of habitable environments as well as sites that may have once hosted microbial life, examining the Red Planet with 23 cameras, a microphone and a drill to collect samples.