02:57Black Hawk on Red Planet: NASA to Deploy Helicopter on Mars

NASA's Mars Helicopter

NASA's Mars Helicopter

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", said NASA's Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the science mission directorate.

In development since 2013, the 4-lb.

The space agency announced the decision on Friday to add a small helicopter - about 1.8 kilos with a fuselage the size of a softball and blades that span just over a metre, tip to tip - to its Mars 2020 mission, which is to launch in July 2020 and arrive at Mars the following February.

Also, the Martian atmosphere is practically non-existent. One of the rover's key tasks will be to collect samples of Martian rock and soil that could be returned to Earth during a follow-up mission.

The helicopter will be attached to the Mars 2020 rover, and deploy once the probe reaches the red planet.

The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project, according to NASA: If the helicopter fails, it won't affect the rest of the Mars 2020 rover's mission, but if it succeeds, the agency will have a powerful new tool to survey the planet and access now unreachable locations.

He added, though, that Mars 2020 has worked to accommodate the helicopter, and was not concerned about any technical risk to the mission from it. However, since Mars's atmosphere is just 1 percent of Earth's, a helicopter that's just sitting on the surface of the Red Planet is already at the equivalent of 100,000 feet on Earth. The flight will last only about two minutes until the battery charge runs out.

Up to five flights are planned over the 30-day test campaign, starting with a flight where the helicopter will ascent to an altitude of three meters and hover for 30 seconds. But the next one it will send there will carry a vehicle with a new approach for planetary exploration: a helicopter.

"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. "This is a process that has taken place at NASA Headquarters to decide whether the helicopter should be flown".

"In my opinion, [operating the helicopter] comes right out of the science time", Farley said. "We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit".

The "marscopter" will be one of the components of the Mars survey mission scheduled to blast off in July 2020, the U.S. space agency announced on Friday. "If it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel".

"To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be", said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the statement.

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