Can A Helicopter Fly On Mars?

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You might think that flying a helicopter on Mars is an outlandish, wildly improbable notion. Copters, after all, achieve lift by deflecting airflow with their rotor blades, as this Federal Aviation Administration handbook explains. And Mars doesn’t have a lot of air for doing that. Its thin atmosphere, in fact, is less than 1 percent of the volume of the atmosphere on Earth.

Well, if you think it can’t be done, NASA is out to prove you wrong. How Stuff Works reports that when the space agency launches its new Mars 2020 rover on a trip to the red planet in July 2020, it will have the Mars Helicopter, a miniature robotic aircraft, attached to it. The experimental helicopter, which is in the final phase of testing, weighs a little less than 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) and its blades are around 4 feet (1.2 meters) long, from tip to tip. NASA researchers hope that it will achieve the first-ever flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft on the red planet.

Read More: NASA’s Dragonfly Drone Heads To Titan, Saturn’s Largest Moon

NASA actually has been working on developing a helicopter that could fly on Mars for decades now, as Bob Balaram, the project’s chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California, explains via email. But solving all the technical challenges was a daunting task.

“A helicopter for Mars has to be tough enough to survive the journey to Mars (high g-loads, vibration, etc.) and the environmental conditions it will face in space and upon arrival (nighttime cold, etc.),” Balaram says. “The design of such as vehicle also has to address the unique aerodynamics in the thin Martian atmosphere, which imposes challenging weight constraints on the vehicle design. It has been possible to meet these stringent mass constraints only recently, with the advent of lightweight electronics (e.g. cell-phone components), and battery technology (e.g. Lithium Ion cells).”

In order to achieve lift in an atmosphere that’s the equivalent of being 100,000 feet (30,400 meters) in altitude on Earth — more than twice the maximum height that helicopters have reached on this planet — the Mars copter’s blades will spin at 2,300-2,900 revolutions per minute, about 10 times faster than Earth helicopters do. Continue reading about NASA’s latest mission.

Source: How Stuff Works


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