The red planet is getting a helicopter.

Developed by Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a flying machine held aloft by twin rotors will be taken to Mars in 2020 and become the first “heavier-than-air” craft to be flown on another world, NASA announced today.

The Mars Helicopter is being envisioned as a major advancement for future exploration of the planet, providing a new way of exploring areas of the Mars surface that are not easily accessible by land.

Animation of Mars helicopter and Mars 2020 rover. (Courtesy of NASA/JPL-CalTech)
Animation of Mars helicopter and Mars 2020 rover. (Courtesy of NASA/JPL-CalTech)

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASAs Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., said in a statement released by the agency. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a birds-eye view from a `marscopter, we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

The Mars Helicopter will bear no resemblance to the ones that hover almost constantly in the skies above Los Angeles and tracking car chases. This one is roughly the size of a softball, weighing less than four pounds. It has twin rotors that will spin at about 3,000 rotations per minute, which is 10 times faster than Earth helicopters.

“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet,” said Mimi Aung, manager of the project at JPL. “The atmosphere of Mars is only 1 percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, its already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up. To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.”

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Top reach the planet, the helicopter will be attached to the “belly pan” of the Mars 2020 rover. When the rover reaches Mars, the helicopter will be placed on the ground, and once the rover is moved to a safe distance, the helicopter will attempt a historical first launch, even though it is only planned for a height of 10 feet, where it will hover for 30 seconds.

If successful, the copter will fly incrementally longer missions, flying up to a few hundred meters for as long as 90 seconds.

The Mars Helicopter is billed by NASA as a “technology demonstration” to prove that such aerial vehicles can be flown above the surface of other worlds, showing that they can be deployed as “low-flying scouts.”

The Mars 2020 rover mission, also managed by JPL, is scheduled for launch in February 2020, arriving on Mars one year later.

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