NASA is working toward a future when humans will walk on the surface of Mars. But first it’s going to try flying a drone through the air.
The Mars Helicopter, a small, self-flying aircraft designed specifically for the Red Planet, will be included in the space agency’s next rover mission in 2020 to beam back a birds-eye view of Martian terrain.
The 1.8-kilogram chopper is “a high-risk, high-reward project,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said in a statement Friday.
“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said. The views from a helicopter flying across Mars will also provide NASA with a stellar public relations tool as it seeks international support for sending humans to the planet in the 2030s or later.
Even if the aerial project flops on arrival, it won’t hurt the main Mars 2020 rover mission, which is scheduled for launch in the summer of that year to land in February 2021.
Each of the planned flights on Mars will last as long as 90 seconds, NASA said in an announcement issued at the same time Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, was launching a communications satellite for Bangladesh. The NASA aircraft will be controlled through commands relayed from the rover, and will be powered by solar-charged lithium-ion batteries.
“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,” said Mimi Aung, the helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.