How well can a vehicle fly in the Mars atmosphere? NASA just got a step closer to finding out, announcing Wednesday that its Mars Helicopter has been attached to the Mars Rover it intends to send to the Red Planet next year. The 2020 Mars Rover should arrive on the planet in February 2021, and if all goes to plan, the helicopter will then become the first aircraft to fly on a planet other than Earth.
The Mars Helicopter will serve a double duty. NASA will use it to see how the conditions on Mars affect aviation, and to prove that we can fly helicopters, drones and other aircraft on Mars. Once in the air, .
"Our job is to prove that autonomous, controlled flight can be executed in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere," said MiMi Aung, manager of the Mars Helicopter project. "If we prove powered flight on Mars can work, we look forward to the day when Mars helicopters can play an important role in future explorations of the Red Planet."
The thin Martial atmosphere Aung mentions means the Mars Helicopter has to be both lightweight and powerful. It'll use solar cells to charge its batteries, and operate a built-in heater to combat frigid nighttime temperatures. The chopper will be autonomous: The nearest humans will be millions of miles away, so any kind of manual control isn't yet an option.
NASA first announced its plan to attach a chopper to its 2020 Mars Rover, but it's been developing the technology since 2013.
Correction, 8:25 a.m. PT: The story initially misstated the distance to Mars.