Helicopter close-up 2
Mars Helicopter Close-up | Photo by NASA JPL through Aviation Week

Next Year A Special Mission Should Last 687 Days (Maybe Longer).

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Many people, myself included, have a fascination with one of the planets in our solar system. Once we successfully went to the moon and returned safely so many times interplanetary space travel became closer to being a reality. Rovers have been sent to Mars as I have described in this column multiple times. The question could be asked “What will make the next rover’s expedition different?” The answer is not as simple as you might think.

Phases of Flight
Main Phases of Mars 2020 Flight | Image by Research Gate

Mars 2020 Mission, as it is called, has a launch window of July 17, 2020 through August 5, 2020. It will blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida with the landing scheduled for February 18, 2021 at Jezero Crater, Mars. This mission is planned to last one Mars year which is the equivalent of 687 days here on Earth. With the surprisingly long-lasting life of the previous rovers this mission could possibly last longer than the expected time frame.

Mars 2020 Rover
Mars 2020 Rover | Photo by jpl.nasa.gov

This rover has some improvements over it’s predecessors. It will have a special drill for obtaining core samples of the Martian landscape and specially designed wheels that are more functional than those on other rovers. However, those aren’t necessarily the most important differences. This rover will carry something special strapped to its belly. That is a specially made helicopter. This unique helicopter is composed of “more that 1,500 individual pieces of carbon fiber, flight-grade aluminum, silicon, copper, foil, and foam.”

Mars Helicopter | Photo by NASA JPL through newssky.com

Earlier this year the helicopter was tested to make sure it would function properly. Quoting NASA Science from the mars.nasa.gov site: “Weighing in at no more than 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms), the helicopter  is a technology demonstration project currently going through the rigorous verification process certifying it for Mars. An engineering model of the helicopter was tested for more than an hour and 15 minutes of successful flying time. The real test is using the actual vehicle that will be flying on Mars.

Mimi Aung, project manager for the Mars helicopter project, is quoted on the site as saying “The Martian atmosphere is only one percent the density of Earth’s. Our test flights could have similar atmospheric density here on Earth – if you put your airfield 100,000 ft. (30,480 meters) up. So you can’t go somewhere and find that. You have to make it.”

Vacuum Chamber
JPL Space Simulator Vacuum Chamber | Photo by NASA JPL through You Tube

They did just that by utilizing NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL’s) space simulator vacuum chamber. The simulator replaced the oxygen, nitrogen, and other gasses of our atmosphere with carbon dioxide to closer simulate the atmospheric conditions on Mars. As if that weren’t difficult enough they also had to change the atmospheric pressure to two thirds of that here on Earth. They used a motorized cable attached to the top of the mission helicopter to simulate the difference in gravitational force. Test conductor for the vehicle, Teddy Tzanetos, is quoted as explaining “The gravity offload system performed perfectly, just like our helicopter. We only required a 2-inch ( five centimeter) hover to attain all the data sets needed to confirm that our Mars helicopter flies autonomously as designed in a thin Mars-like atmosphere; there was no need to go higher. It was a heck of a first flight.” They performed a second test flight the following day which gave the vehicle a total of one minute of actual flight time. That may not seem like much time in the air for such an important project.

Wright Flyer
Wright Brothers First Motorized Flight | Photo by NASA.gov

Let’s compare that to another very famous historical flight. The Wright brothers first motor-powered flight back on December 17, 1903 only lasted for 12 seconds attaining an altitude of a mere 120 feet (37 meters). That flight proved that it could be done and it is the same for the Mars helicopter test flights. The testing is over now. The next time it will fly will be over the surface of Mars.

I don’t know about you, but I will be following this mission very closely. Space history will be made and we will be a part of it.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can email me at: [email protected].