NASA has attached the Mars Helicopter to the Perseverance rover flight deck, as the space agency continues assembly of all stages of the vehicle, which is scheduled for lift-off in July 2020. Provided the rover is successfully delivered to the Red Planet, the Mars Helicopter will be the first human-built vehicle to fly in an extraterrestrial atmosphere.

The Mars Helicopter is just one tool aboard the NASA’s newest space mission. Inclusive of rocket delivery stages, descent capsule, rover and helicopter, the Mars 2020 mission will explore an ancient Martian lakebed, specifically Jezero Crater, in search of evidence of previously habitable conditions and simple organism life. The helicopter will scout terrain for the rover, finding targets for analysis and paths for travel.

However, the helicopter is considered a non-essential technology for mission success, and will demonstrate the feasibility of future drones for Mars exploration. Mars’ gravity is about one-third of that as Earth’s, but the atmosphere is only 1% as thick, making it much harder to generate lift. The copter is a coaxial rotor design, with a rotor span of 4 ft and 2,400 rpm, and weight of 4 lb.

The flight time for the helicopter is expected to be only a few minutes per flight, due to power limitations. The copter is solar powered NASA expects to complete a handful of flights within the first month to test the technology. Each flight could cover a distance of about one-third of a mile, with a maximum altitude of 10 m. The vehicle will operate entirely autonomously, landing and taking off from the flight deck of the rover.

Regardless of exact launch date, the Perseverance rover is planned to touchdown on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. Perseverance will be key to future Mars missions, including potential manned missions, and the Mars Helicopter will help scientists what roles drones could play in those future missions.

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