Mars helicopter passes first flight test

Mini-helicopter to be 2021 first flying drone on the red planet

NASA's Mars helicopters could become the first aircraft on a foreign planet in 2021 - now it has completed its first flight test. © NASA / JPL-Caltech
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Maiden flight under Martian conditions: NASA's Mars helicopter has successfully completed its first flight tests. During two flights in a special vacuum chamber, the twin-rotor mini-helicopter proved that it can take off and fly in the thin Martian atmosphere. The semi-autonomous drone is scheduled to launch in 2020 with the next NASA Mars rover to the Red Planet. It will be the first aircraft on a foreign planet.

Whether as a recreational fun, explorer or flying camera - drones have long since become commonplace on Earth. But on another celestial body so far no such aircraft has flown. However, that should change with the next Mars mission of NASA. For in 2020, a semi-autonomous mini-helicopter will travel to Mars together with a new Mars rover. This Mars helicopter should help to explore the environment.

The Mars helicopter in the vacuum chamber - good to see the pair of superimposed rotors. © NASA / JPL-Caltech

How do you fly in extremely thin air?

The problem, however, is that the atmosphere of Mars is extremely thin. "The Martian atmosphere is only about one percent as dense as the terrestrial, " says Mimi Aung of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of NASA. "To get these conditions on Earth, you would have to do a test flight at 30, 480 meters altitude." No normal helicopter could hold in this air at this altitude.

But the Mars helicopter is specially adapted to these conditions: It has counter-rotating rotors, which create almost 3, 000 revolutions per minute ten times as much as normal helicopters. This high power and the opposite rotation should allow the Mars aircraft to fly in spite of the Martian atmosphere. In addition, the small helicopter weighs only 1.8 kilograms.

Flight test in the vacuum chamber

Whether the mini-helicopter flies under Martian conditions, the NASA researchers have now tested in a special vacuum chamber the Space Simulator at JPL. From this nearly eight-meter vacuum chamber, the complete air was pumped out before the test started. Then the researchers added only as much carbon dioxide as the Martian atmosphere. display

"But this fine atmosphere is just part of the challenge, " explains Teddy Tzanetos from the JPL. "In order to realistically simulate flying on Mars, we also need to remove two-thirds of the Earth's gravity." The engineers achieved this through a special suspension system, which carries part of the load following the flight movements. This will allow you to determine exactly how much lift the helicopter actually needs to take off under Martian conditions.

"This test flight was the decisive one. Because this is the helicopter that will later fly on Mars so we needed to know if it really works as suggested by models and pre-tests, "says Aung.

Successfully lifted off

And indeed: The little Mars helicopter flies. Twice he lifted off the platform of the vacuum chamber and hovered a few inches above the floor. "It took us only five centimeters to collect all the necessary data, " explains Tzanetos. "They confirm that our Mars helicopter can fly autonomously in a Martian atmosphere. It was a great first flight. "

The Mars helicopter is set to help explore the Red Planet in the future. "NASA / JPL-Caltech

This will pave the way for the helicopter's journey to the Red Planet in 2020. "The next time we fly it, it will be on Mars, " says Aung. Guarded on the belly of the Mars rover, it will land on Mars in February 2021. A few months later the maiden flight is to take place. The Mars helicopter could then be the first man-made aircraft on a strange celestial body.

Although the drone will perform only short flights of one and a half minutes each on their first mission. But if she proves herself, soon more models with a longer range will follow. "The ability to see what lies behind the next hill is crucial for future Martian explorers, " says Thomas Zurbuchen of NASA.

Source: NASA

- Nadja Podbregar