“For the first time, we are going to fly a helicopter on another world with the Mars Helicopter,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced earlier this month. This week, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released new video of Mars Helicopter test flights.
During the test flights, the helicopter successfully hovered 2 inches, proving its flight readiness for the agency’s Mars 2020 rover mission.
“This recent test of the flight model was the real deal,” Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, said in a news release. “This is our helicopter bound for Mars. We needed to see that it worked as advertised.”
Flying a helicopter on Earth is an everyday occurrence, but Mars’ thin atmosphere presents unique challenges. For the test flights, scientists replicated the Martian conditions.
“The team recreated the gravity and flying conditions at Mars in JPL’s Space Simulator, a 25-foot wide vacuum chamber,” according to JPL.
JPL engineers first began building the Mars Helicopter in 2013. More than a half-decade later, the four-pound vehicle is ready to fly alien skies. The copter levitates using twin, counter-rotating blades, which are powered by an engine the size of a football.
The Mars Helicopter will pair up with the Mars 2020 rover. After initial test flights on the Red Planet, the helicopter will conduct autonomous flights, seeking out and observing new terrain for the rover and its instruments to explore.
“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,” Aung said in a news release last year. “Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.”
The next time the helicopter flies, it will fly on Mars.
During their time together on the Red Planet, the Mars 2020 rover and its copter companion will search for signs of Martian life, as well as survey natural resources and hazards for future human missions.