The flight mod­el of NASA’s Mars Heli­copter. (Image: NASA)

NASA’s Mars Heli­copter — first vehi­cle in his­to­ry that will attempt to estab­lish the via­bil­i­ty of heav­ier-than-air vehi­cles fly­ing on anoth­er plan­et — has suc­cess­ful­ly passed key tests, the US space agency said.

“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 the US. “Our flight mod­el — the actu­al vehi­cle that will trav­el to Mars — has recent­ly passed sev­er­al impor­tant tests,” said Aung.

In Jan­u­ary this year the team had oper­at­ed the flight mod­el in a sim­u­lat­ed Mar­t­ian 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 1.8‑kilogramme 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, NASA said in a state­ment. Its pur­pose is to con­firm that pow­ered flight in the ten­u­ous Mar­t­ian atmos­phere (which has one per cent the den­si­ty of Earth’s) is pos­si­ble and that it can be con­trolled from Earth over large inter­plan­e­tary dis­tances.

How­ev­er, the heli­copter also car­ries a cam­era capa­ble of pro­vid­ing high-res­o­lu­tion colour 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.

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. The duo was sub­ject­ed to 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 ‑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 for fur­ther test­ing and fin­ish­ing touch­es. 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 fibre, flight-grade alu­minum, sil­i­con, cop­per, foil and aero­gel con­tin­ue to work as a cohe­sive unit.

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 Feb­ru­ary 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.

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