Mars 2020 mission: Perseverance rover features first-ever helicopter to fly on another planet


The Mars 2020 mission with its Perseverance rover is set to venture to the red planet on July 17, 2020, aiming to address high-priority scientific goals, including major astrobiology questions about the potential for life on Mars. As part of the final preparations' progress, it has been announced that a helicopter has been attached to the rover, which will be the first-ever power-controlled flight on another planet.

The mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term endeavor of robotic exploration of the planet.

"The Perseverance rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a "cache" on the surface of Mars," NASA wrote on its website.

The future mission could return the samples to Earth, which would help scientists study them in laboratories with special room-sized equipment that will be too big to take to the red planet.

"The mission also provides opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars," NASA stated.

It is also timed for a launch opportunity in July 2020, 'when Earth and Mars are in good positions relative to each other for landing on Mars. That is, it takes less power to travel to Mars at this time, compared to other times when Earth and Mars are in different positions in their orbits.'

This illustration depicts NASA's Perseverance rover operating on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

"To keep mission costs and risks as low as possible, the Mars 2020 design is based on NASA's successful Mars Science Laboratory mission architecture, including its Curiosity rover and proven landing system."

The Perseverance rover will launch in July and touch down in Mars' Jezero crater on February 18, 2021.

The rover has four science objectives that support the program's goals. The first objective is to determine if life ever occurred on Mars– it will look for habitability and identify past environments capable of supporting microbial life.

For the second objective, Perseverance will characterize the climate of Mars. It will seek signs of probable past microbial life, especially in particular rocks known to preserve signs of life.

The third objective is to gather samples. The rover will collect core rock and soil samples, then store them on the red planet's surface.

Lastly, the fourth objective is to prepare for human exploration by testing oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere.

On April 10, NASA announced that they have attached a helicopter on the Perseverance rover, set to be deployed almost three months after the rover lands.

Landing on Mars requires major engineering, thus, NASA will be using a special descent stage called the "sky crane" to lower the rover through Mars' atmosphere and onto the surface.

According to NASA, around 401 kg (884 lbs) of hydrazine monopropellant were loaded into the descent stage's four fuel tanks. 

As the aeroshell penetrate the Martian atmosphere on February 18, 2021, the propellant will be pressured through 37 m (120 feet) of stainless steel and titanium tubing into eight landing engines in Mars.

The engines will slow down the spacecraft which will be moving at about 290 km/h (180 mph) when it's 2 200 m (7 200 feet) in altitude, to 2.7 km/h (1.7 mph) when it reaches around 20 m (66 feet) above the surface.

While maintaining its descent rate, the stage will perform the sky crane maneuver– nylon cords spool out to lower the rover 7.6 m (25 feet) below the descent stage. As the spacecraft detects touchdown at Jezero Crater, the cords are cut and the descent stage flies off.

"The last hundred days before any Mars launch is chock-full of significant milestones," said David Gruel, the Mars 2020 assembly, test, and launch operations manager at the Jet Propulsions Laboratory (JPL).

"Fueling the descent stage is a big step. While we will continue to test and evaluate its performance as we move forward with launch preparations, it is now ready to fulfill its mission of placing Perseverance on the surface on Mars."


Mars helicopter and Perseverance Rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Following the descent stage fueling, the system that will bring the Mars helicopter to the red planet's surface was connected with Perseverance. The helicopter weighs about 1.8 kg (4 lbs) and has 1.2 m (4 feet) propellers within the delivery system.

The team confirmed that the helicopter can receive an electrical charge from the rover. The Mars helicopter will rely on the rover for power before it is deployed onto the Jezero Crater's surface. After that, it will produce its own electrical power via solar panel situated above its twin counter-rotating propellers.

The helicopter will remain on the rover's belly part for the following year and will be deployed around early May– almost three months after the landing of Perseverance.

Once the rover drives about 100 m (330 feet) away and the helicopter conducts an extensive systems check, it will do a flight-test campaign for up to one month.


Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If all goes to plan, it will be the first aircraft in history to attempt a power-controlled flight on another planet.

This artist's concept shows the Mars Helicopter on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

"The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet," NASA stated.

"Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA's Artemis lunar exploration plans."

Featured image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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