NASA’s Mars Helicopter Testing Enters Final Phase – Jet Propulsion Laboratory


NASA’s
Mars Helicopter flight demonstration project has passed a number of key tests with
flying colors. In 2021, the small, autonomous helicopter will be the first
vehicle in history to attempt to establish the viability of heavier-than-air vehicles
flying on another planet.

“Nobody’s
built a Mars Helicopter before, so we are continuously entering new territory,”
said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Our flight model – the
actual vehicle that will travel to Mars – has recently passed several important
tests.”

The laws of physics may say it’s near impossible to fly on Mars, but actually flying a heavier-than-air vehicle on the Red Planet is much harder than that. NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will deliver a technology demonstration that will put the idea to the test — a helicopter that will perform controlled flight on Mars.

Back in January 2019 the team operated the flight model in a
simulatedMartian environment. Then the helicopter was
moved to Lockheed Martin Space in Denver for compatibility testing with the
Mars Helicopter Delivery System, which will hold the 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) spacecraft
against the belly of the Mars 2020 rover during launch and interplanetary
cruise before deploying it onto the surface of Mars after landing.

As
a technology demonstrator, the Mars Helicopter carries no science instruments.
Its purpose is to confirm that powered flight in the tenuous Martian atmosphere
(which has 1% the density of Earth’s) is possible and that it can be controlled
from Earth over large interplanetary distances. But the helicopter also carries
a camera capable of providing high-resolution color images to further
demonstrate the vehicle’s potential for documenting the Red Planet.

Future
Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial
dimension to their explorations. They could investigate previously unvisited or
difficult-to-reach destinations such as cliffs, caves and deep craters, act as
scouts for human crews or carry small payloads from one location to another.
But before any of that happens, a test vehicle has to prove it is possible.

In
Denver, the Mars Helicopter and its delivery system were checked to make sure that
the electrical connections and mechanisms that linked the flight vehicle with its
cradle fit snuggly. Then, while still mated, the duo endured the sorts of vibrations
they will experience during launch and in-flight
operations. The thermal vacuum portion of the testing introduced them to the kinds
of extreme temperatures (down
to -200 degrees Fahrenheit, or -129 degrees Celsius) that they will
encounter in space and on Mars and that could cause components to malfunction
or fail.

The Mars Helicopter returned to JPL on May 11, 2019, for further
testing and finishing touches. Among the highlights: A new solar panel that
will power the helicopter has been installed, and the vehicle’s rotor blades have
been spun up to ensure that the more than 1,500 individual pieces of carbon fiber, flight-grade
aluminum, silicon, copper, foil andaerogelcontinue to work as a cohesive unit. Of
course, there’s more testing to come.

“We expect to complete our final tests and refinements and deliver
the helicopter to the High Bay 1 clean room for integration with the rover
sometime this summer,” said Aung, “but we will never really be done
with testing the helicopter until we fly at Mars.”

The Mars Helicopter
will launch with the Mars 2020 rover on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket
in July 2020 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,
Florida. When it lands in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021, the rover will also be the
first spacecraft in the history of planetary exploration with the ability to
accurately retarget its point of touchdown during the landing sequence.

The 2020 rover will
conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the
habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life and
assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers. In another
first, scientists will use the instruments aboard the rover to identify and
collect samples of rock and soil, encase them in sealed tubes, and leave them
on the planet’s surface for potential return to Earth on a future Mars mission.

JPL is building and will manage operations of the Mars 2020
rover and Mars Helicopter for the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the
agency’s headquarters in Washington. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy
Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.

If you want to send your name to Mars with NASA’s 2020 mission
you can do so until Sept. 30, 2019. Add your name to the list and obtain a
souvenir boarding pass to Mars here:

https://go.nasa.gov/Mars2020Pass

For more information about the mission, go to:

https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/

For more information
about NASA’s Mars missions, go to:

https://www.nasa.gov/mars

News Media Contact

DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-393-9011
agle@jpl.nasa.gov

Alana Johnson
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-672-4780
alana.r.johnson@nasa.gov

2019-106

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