NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is finally taking shape. The rover finally has a name — Perseverance, and engineers have wrapped up testing on the rover’s flying companion. The Mars Helicopter just spun its blades on Earth for the last time. When next it spins up, it’ll be on the red planet.
NASA did not design the Mars 2020 mission or Perseverance rover around the Mars Helicopter, but it’s making the trip nonetheless. The helicopter is a technology demonstration, not an integral part of the mission. However, it could pave the way for future flying endeavors on Mars. The team has already confirmed that the helicopter should be able to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere thanks to its ultra-light design and the planet’s lower gravity.
The last flight test took place about a year ago (see below), and the helicopter still hasn’t lifted off again — it’s tuned for the Martian atmosphere, so any flights on Earth require extensive preparation to avoid damaging the machinery. However, the team did conduct one more vital test of the rotors last week in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility.
Engineers ran the Mars Helicopter rotors at 50 RPM on a static test stand, which is much slower than they’ll rotate on Mars. The planet’s thin atmosphere means even a light craft like the four-pound helicopter needs a very high rate of rotation to generate lift. The design allows for up to 2,800 revolutions per minute, but it should be able to lift off at around 1,900 RPM. The JPL test confirms the motor is working as intended, and the helicopter is ready to be mounted on the underside of the Perseverance rover.
Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, NASA has worked to keep the Mars 2020 mission on-schedule. Work has stopped on the James Webb Space Telescope for now, but the clock is ticking for the rover. If it doesn’t launch as planned this summer, NASA will have to wait another two years for Earth and Mars to be aligned again.
If all goes as planned, Perseverance will launch July 17 and touch down on Mars in February 2021. It will deploy the helicopter, which has its own solar power system and camera. It will communicate with Perseverance wirelessly via the ZigBee radio protocol. Image data from the helicopter might help Perseverance navigate the challenging terrain of Mars, but future flying drones could be much more integral to exploring Mars.
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