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NASA's next Mars rover will have a helicopter on board

Yes, you can call it a "marscopter."

This illustration shows what the Mars Helicopter might look like as it readies for takeoff.


Choppers on Mars? Yeah! 

NASA said Friday it would send "an autonomous rotorcraft" along with a rover on a Mars 2020 mission. We all know that's NASA-speak for "marscopter."

A Mars Helicopter prototype undergoes some testing on Earth.

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

The idea of the space helicopter isn't new. NASA talked about the proposed mission add-on back in 2015 and it's been in development since 2013. But not every suggested piece of technology gets on the final mission roster. The helicopter made the cut.

The design is compact enough to fit in the belly of the Mars 2020 rover for the journey to the Red Planet. Once there, it will use solar cells to charge its batteries and operate a built-in heater to combat frigid nighttime temperatures. 

The helicopter has to contend with the thin Martian atmosphere, so it has to be both lightweight and powerful. "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," says NASA.

NASA released an animated video of the helicopter zipping around Mars to the tune of a heart-pounding soundtrack. It goes on to show some actual flight test footage of how the machine would operate in a Mars-like atmosphere. 

Once on Mars, NASA plans to deploy the helicopter for a 30-day flight test campaign with up to five flights covering progressively greater distances. 

"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," says Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager. That's why it has to fly itself autonomously once it receives its instructions.

If the marscopter works, it will open up a new way of looking at the Red Planet by giving the rover and NASA scientists back on Earth an eye in the sky. That would fill in some gaps between the rover's close-to-the-ground camera perspective and the long-distance view we get from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Is it crazy to think we can fly a helicopter on another planet? NASA acknowledges the challenge, saying this is a "high-risk, high-reward project." The Mars 2020 rover is on track for a mid-2020 launch date.

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