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NASA’s Mars helicopter spins blades for last time before launch

NASA is making the final preparations for its Mars 2020 mission, set for launch in July.

The space agency recently reported the completion of important testing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, close to where the rocket and spacecraft carrying the recently named Perseverance rover will lift off in three months’ time.

The testing included the last spin of NASA’s Mars Helicopter rotor blades, which will be heading to the Red Planet attached to Perseverance. In the trial, engineers rotated the blades at 50 revolutions per minute, far slower than the approximately 2,500 revolutions per minute that the blades will make during actual deployment.

There’s much excitement surrounding the Mars Helicopter as it’s set to become the very first aircraft to fly on another planet. The machine will help NASA to find potentially useful research sites on the Martian surface, and also gather data for mapping routes for future Mars rovers.

The Mars Helicopter in the lab. NASA

The helicopter (above) weighs just 4 pounds (1.8 kg) and is kept airborne by two pairs of 120-cm-long rotors, one mounted above the other. Solar cells and batteries take care of its power needs, while an internal heater will help it deal with the planet’s dramatic drop in temperature at night. Using the rover as a launch and landing pad, each flight will last around 90 seconds, during which time the helicopter will reach a height of around 16 feet.

The helicopter features a downward-facing 12-megapixel camera, with captured imagery beamed back to Earth via the rover.

To enable autonomous flight, the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) developed a vision-based navigation system that analyzes the camera images and combines the information with data from other instruments monitoring the helicopter’s position, velocity, and attitude.

Its first controlled flight took place in 2016 inside JPL’s own space simulator, a large vacuum chamber where the conditions of the Martian atmosphere are able to be replicated. Since then the helicopter’s design has been gradually refined in readiness for the upcoming space trip.

NASA has also been finalizing other parts of the mission ahead of launch.

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused the space agency to suspend work on its Space Launch System and Orion projects, but at the current time the Mars Helicopter is still set to launch with the rover on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in July, reaching the distant planet in February 2021.

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