Nasa is sending a helicopter to search the skies over Mars

Enlarge ImageA Mars Helicopter prototype undergoes some testing on Earth.                  Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser  CNET

Enlarge ImageA Mars Helicopter prototype undergoes some testing on Earth. Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser CNET

The undertaking began in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The helicopter to mars is remote-controlled, created to take flight in the thin Martian atmosphere with twin counter-rotating blades, weighs about four pounds (1.8 kilograms), with a fuselage the size of a softball, NASA said. It has twin rotors that will spin at about 3,000 rotations per minute, which is 10 times faster than Earth helicopters. And it won't be able to go very high.

Mars has only 38 percent of Earth's gravity, but its atmosphere is vanishingly thin compared to Earth's, so the biggest challenge was to design a vehicle that is both light and powerful enough, according to Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL.

The space agency announced the decision on Friday to add a small helicopter - about 1.8 kilos with a fuselage the size of a softball and blades that span just over a metre, tip to tip - to its Mars 2020 mission, which is to launch in July 2020 and arrive at Mars the following February.

The primary goal of the Mars 2020 rover is to investigate a to-be-determined ancient environment on Mars that could have hosted past or present-day bacterial life.

Once the helicopter is placed on Mars, the rover will move to a safe distance and relay commands. Controllers on the Earth will command the helicopter to take its first autonomous flight after its batteries are charged and tests are conducted, NASA said.

"After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world", NASA Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said.

The helicopter will attempt up to five flights, going farther and operating for longer each time - up to a few hundred meters and 90 seconds, officials said.

On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet and hover for about 30 sec. If it does not work, the Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted.

The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project, according to NASA: If the helicopter fails, it won't affect the rest of the Mars 2020 rover's mission, but if it succeeds, the agency will have a powerful new tool to survey the planet and access now unreachable locations.

If it is successful, it might pave the way for similar craft to act as low-flying scouts to help access parts of Mars not reachable by ground travel.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", said Zurbuchen. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a Mars copter, we can only imagine what future missions will achieve". The rover is created to carry out geological studies and ascertain the habitability of the Martian environment, NASA said. No aircraft has ever taken off from the surface of another planet.

The potential addition of Mars Helicopter, though, has not necessarily been warmly accepted by the main Mars 2020 mission.

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