Nasa is sending a helicopter to search the skies over Mars

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The announcement just came today from NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former congressman who was recently appointed to the position without having any background in science.

Both Bridenstine and Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, highlighted the fact that, if successful, Mars Helicopter will be the first heavier-than-air vehicle to fly on another world. "The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars".

In development since 2013, the 4-lb.

The mission already includes an in situ resource utilization experiment called Moxie, which will attempt to produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide with a process known as solid oxide electrolysis.

Instead, the helicopter will "fly the mission on its own". At a meeting of the National Academies' Space Studies Board May 3, Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020, said he and others on the mission had concerns about flying that technology demonstration.

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The helicopter is equipped with "solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights". Its primary payload will be a camera. "The atmosphere of Mars is only 1 percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it's already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up (30,500 meters)".

It will do so attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.

Because Mars' atmospheric density is only 1 percent of Earth's, NASA says the drone's twin, counter-rotating blades would have to turn at almost 3,000 rpm - about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.

It will also climb to 10 feet (3 m) and hover for about 30 seconds.

There will be a 30-day flight period consisting of five flights, each one a progression of farther flight distances.

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"One possibility that's being considered is [the helicopter] can be used as a scouting tool to identify interesting terrain to send the rover to", Farley said.

"I am not an advocate for the helicopter, and I don't believe the Mars 2020 project has been an advocate for the helicopter", he said at the meeting. After the rover lands, the helicopter will be placed on the ground. "Everybody agrees it will not put the mission at risk", he said.

BBC notes that existing vehicles on Mars have been wheeled ones bound on the planet's surface, which is prone to running into obstacles. "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 Mimi Aung, the project manager of NASA's Mars Helicopter at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement.

Mars 2020 is slated to launch in July of that year on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and the mission should arrive at Mars in February 2021.

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