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".
"NASA has a proud history of firsts", said Jim Bridenstine, the agency's new administrator. Those commands will take several minutes to reach the helicopter from Earth, so it will need some autonomous capabilities to make sure it can fly on its own, without anyone controlling it in real time.
NASA said on Friday it will send a small helicopter to Mars as part of the U.S. space agency's 2020 mission to place a next-generation rover on the Martian surface, marking the first time such an aircraft will be used on another world.
The idea was started in August 2013 as a technology development project.
Tipping the scales at a little under four pounds (1.8 kilograms), the Mars Helicopter is quite small - its fuselage is no bigger than a softball, NASA pointed out. Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at nearly 3,000 rpm - about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.
"The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet". The atmosphere at Mars is very thin; about 1 percent of Earth's.
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BBC notes that existing vehicles on Mars have been wheeled ones bound on the planet's surface, which is prone to running into obstacles.
Due to the atmospheric difference between Earth and Mars, the helicopter will be the equivalent of 100,000 feet in the air at home when it is on the ground on Mars.
NASA plans to use the Mars Helicopter on five flights over the course of 30 days, covering distances up to a few hundred metres in 90 seconds or less. That would fill in some gaps between the rover's close-to-the-ground camera perspective and the long-distance view we get from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
According to Bridenstine, the success of the "marscopter" may enable more ambitious missions in the future.
Mars 2020 will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.
He added, though, that Mars 2020 has worked to accommodate the helicopter, and was not concerned about any technical risk to the mission from it. The rover is created to carry out geological reports also to ascertain the habitability of this Martian environment, NASA explained. That could be useful, for example, for later missions to help spot samples cached by Mars 2020 in order to collect them for return to Earth.