NASA will fly a test drone on 2020 Mars rover mission


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NASA today announced that a test drone, dubbed Mars Helicopter, will be flown on the 2020 Mars rover mission.

Once the rover is on the planet’s surface, a suitable location will be found to deploy the helicopter down from the vehicle and place it onto the ground. The rover then will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands. After its batteries are charged and a myriad of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight into history.

“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,” said Aung. “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 full 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally farther flight distances, up to a few hundred meters, and longer durations as long as 90 seconds, over a period. On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds.

As a technology demonstration, the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. If it does not work, the Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted. If it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel.

The only word I can think of to express my thoughts on this is “Cool!”

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5 comments

  • Max

    We were just talking about this recently.
    I am skeptical that there is enough air to provide lift, the low gravity of mars will help. nearly 4 pounds is a challenge but the design looks right. I expected thicker blades but the high rpm’s should compensate. If it tips over…

    Details from the article;
    “Started in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Mars Helicopter had to prove that big things could come in small packages. The result of the team’s four years of design, testing and redesign weighs in at little under four pounds (1.8 kilograms). Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rpm — about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.”

    Very exciting, just what they need to examine the entrance to lava caves and sinkholes.
    If this works out, I’m sure a design can be created were a light solar panel/battery could be carried independently as a charging station to distant locations of interest, where the charging station could separate to collect energy by day while the much lighter drone scouts the formations, hopping from interest to interest, and returns.

    I still think a Mylar balloon with helium lift and communication system similar to the cell phone in the watch, powered by a solar panel on top of the balloon.
    If the balloon loses lift during the cold of the night, there might be an option of a microgram of plutonium placed inside the battery which would not only create power, but heat to keep the balloon aloft.
    Such a thing would drift with the wind patterns but may have the ability to stay alive for years, covering a great distance.

  • Edward

    Max wrote: “I am skeptical that there is enough air to provide lift,

    The test shown in the second half of the video embedded in the article was performed in a vacuum chamber in order to verify that the drone could fly in a thin atmosphere. This was not very clear in the video. I am a little concerned that it may tip over on landing. Can it right itself?

    Although I agree that a balloon would last a long time (hydrogen would leak out more slowly than helium), it seems that our scientists are not yet ready for the arbitrary nature of what could be studied via a balloon adrift on the wind.

  • Localfluff

    @Edward
    Why would hydrogen leak less than helium?

  • Max

    He meant that helium would leak out slower than hydrogen. Hydrogen has an atomic number of 1, helium is 2. But helium has two neutrons and two protons which makes its atomic weight 4 times that of hydrogen. (It’s a wonder that the helium doesn’t snuff out the Sun’s core, choking on its own byproduct)
    Hydrogen definitely provides more lift, but there is no container that can hold it for very long because the atoms are so small that it passes right through. I believe the losses are 10% per day, that’s why hydrogen tanks are double walled. What leaks through to the inner compartment is pumped back into the tank.
    The cold war space would keep hydrogen loss to a minimum but it would still be a problem. For a balloon to use Hydrogen it would need to create it upon need. electrolyzing water, or lye and aluminum.
    Helium can be kept in a light metal container with a microvalve controlled by altitude and could last years. A dirigible could have propellers to steer it.

    Edward wrote;
    “I am a little concerned that it may tip over on landing. Can it right itself?”

    If the helicopters propellers touch the ground while turning at high speed, it is likely that it will not do so without damage. The action/reaction of the blades against the ground or rock will provide more thrust then the blades spinning in the air. In other words, it’ll ricochet off anything it touches launching itself in the light gravity tumbling end over end.

  • Edward

    Localfluff asked: “Why would hydrogen leak less than helium?

    Max answered: “He meant that helium would leak out slower than hydrogen.

    Helium is atomic and hydrogen is molecular. The tiny helium atom permeates materials relatively easily but the larger hydrogen molecule not so much.

    Vacuum chamber operators use helium to check for leaks, because it fairly easily goes through the tiniest of holes or cracks or past scratches in seals. However, when (synthetic) rubber seals are used, the helium permeates into the seal and slowly comes out, making looking for leaks around such seals troublesome and time consuming, but helium is still used because a leak will make itself known quickly, once the operator eventually gets to where the leak is occurring.

    For the same reasons, helium will escape from balloons faster than hydrogen.

    Hydrogen is generally thought to be more dangerous, but that is because of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere. Mars has a CO2 atmosphere, so a hydrogen balloon there would not be as much of an explosive hazard as on Earth.

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