NASA Helicopter Ready for Mission to Mars

Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team attach a thermal film to the exterior of the flight model of the Mars Helicopter. The image was taken on Feb. 1, 2019, inside the Space Simulator, a 25-foot-wide vacuum chamber at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

(CN) – The Mars Helicopter was affixed to the Mars 2020 rover Wednesday as a preparation to make aeronautical history when it becomes the first aircraft to fly on the surface of another planet.

NASA’s solar-powered, autonomous device will catch a ride to Mars on the rover’s underbelly and join in on the mission in July of next year.

Engineers attached the autonomous rotorcraft in the High Bay 1 clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California with hopes of testing an aircraft’s ability to fly in a thinner atmosphere than that of Earth’s.

“Our job is to prove that autonomous, controlled flight can be executed in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere,” said MiMi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager.

According to a JPL press release, the test flight is designed only to determine if aerial measures are viable for future Martian missions and carries no testing instruments of its own.

“The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration. If the small craft encounters difficulties, the science-gathering of the Mars 2020 mission won’t be impacted,” JPL said in its press release. “If the helicopter does take flight as designed, future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations.”

Scientists hope that, if successful, future designs could be used to navigate cliffs, caves and deep craters which would be otherwise inaccessible by rover.

“With this joining of two great spacecraft, I can say definitively that all the pieces are in place for a historic mission of exploration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA’s headquarters in Washington. “Together, Mars 2020 and the Mars Helicopter will help define the future of science and exploration of the Red Planet for decades to come.”

The rover will deploy the helicopter in the Red Planet’s Jezero Crater once a suitable spot to test the device is found.

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