NASA's Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency's Mars 2020 rover, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In what is being called a “high-risk, high-reward” mission, NASA officials announced plans to send a helicopter to Mars in 2020.

On May 11, NASA officials announced plans to attach a small, autonomous helicopter to a belly pan aboard the upcoming Mars 2020 Rover mission, currently scheduled to depart in July 2020.

“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”

The vehicle features built-in capabilities needed to operate on Mars, including solar cells that change its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism that keeps it warm through the cold nights on Mars.

Once the rover reaches Mars, the rotorcraft will undergo a month-long test to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.

NASA will need to find a suitable location to deploy the helicopter down from the vehicle and place it on the ground. Once the batteries are charged and a variety of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the helicopter to takes its first autonomous flight.

“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,” Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, said in a statement. “Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.”

The full 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally further flight distances up to a few hundred meters, and durations as long as 90 seconds. On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet, where it will hover for about 30 seconds.

The rover then will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands.

The Mars Helicopter started in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). After four years of design, testing and redesign, the final version was a craft that weighs less than four pounds.

The aircrafts fuselage is only about the size of a softball and it also includes twin, counter-rotating blades that can slice through the thin Martian atmosphere at nearly 3,000 revolutions per minute, almost 10 times the rate of helicopter blades on Earth.

“Exploring the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future,” Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world.”

Flying a helicopter on Mars will be challenging and there is no guarantee of success, said scientists.

“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet,” Aung said. “The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up.

“To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be,” she added.

Mars 2020 will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.

The rover will conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers.

Scientists will use the instruments aboard the rover to identify and collect samples of rock and soil, encase them in sealed tubes, and leave them on the planet’s surface for potential return to Earth on a future Mars mission.