NASA’s Mars helicopter testing enters final phase

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Published: June 11, 2019 1:08:25 PM

The Mars Helicopter returned to JPL on May 11 for further testing and finishing touches.

In another first, 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.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter — first vehicle in history that will attempt to establish the viability of heavier-than-air vehicles flying on another planet — has successfully passed key tests, the US space agency said. “Nobody’s built a Mars Helicopter before, so we are continuously entering new territory,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US. “Our flight model — the actual vehicle that will travel to Mars — has recently passed several important tests,” said Aung.

In January this year the team had operated the flight model in a simulated Martian environment. Then the helicopter was moved to Lockheed Martin Space in Denver for compatibility testing with the Mars Helicopter Delivery System, which will hold the 1.8-kilogramme spacecraft against the belly of the Mars 2020 rover during launch and interplanetary cruise before deploying it onto the surface of Mars after landing. As a technology demonstrator, the Mars Helicopter carries no science instruments, NASA said in a statement.

Its purpose is to confirm that powered flight in the tenuous Martian atmosphere (which has one per cent the density of Earth’s) is possible and that it can be controlled from Earth over large interplanetary distances. However, the helicopter also carries a camera capable of providing high-resolution colour images to further demonstrate the vehicle’s potential for documenting the Red Planet. Future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations.

They could investigate previously unvisited or difficult-to-reach destinations such as cliffs, caves and deep craters, act as scouts for human crews or carry small payloads from one location to another. The Mars Helicopter and its delivery system were checked to make sure that the electrical connections and mechanisms that linked the flight vehicle with its cradle fit snuggly. The duo was subjected to vibrations they will experience during launch and in-flight operations. The thermal vacuum portion of the testing introduced them to the kinds of extreme temperatures (down to -129 degrees Celsius) that they will encounter in space and on Mars and that could cause components to malfunction or fail.

The Mars Helicopter returned to JPL on May 11 for further testing and finishing touches. A new solar panel that will power the helicopter has been installed, and the vehicle’s rotor blades have been spun up to ensure that the more than 1,500 individual pieces of carbon fibre, flight-grade aluminum, silicon, copper, foil and aerogel continue to work as a cohesive unit. The Mars Helicopter will launch with the Mars 2020 rover on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in July 2020 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

When it lands in Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021, the rover will also be the first spacecraft in the history of planetary exploration with the ability to accurately retarget its point of touchdown during the landing sequence. The 2020 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. In another first, 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.

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