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A small unmanned helicopter drone will join NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission. “Our next rover to Mars will carry the first helicopter ever to fly over the surface of another world,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

NASA has been working on the idea of a helicopter drone on Mars since 2013. The space agency describes the result as a vehicle that “weighs in at little under four pounds (1.8 kilograms). Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rpm — about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.”

The vehicle will be powered by solar panels with lithium-ion batteries and will have a heating unit to allow it to survive the Martian night.

Aerial drones would be very useful for future Mars explorers. Future Mars helicopters would scout ahead to determine what is over the next hill. They could also be used to deliver supplies to astronauts who have embarked away from a Mars base camp to explore the surrounding landscape.

The Mars Helicopter will deploy off the bottom of the Mars 2020 rover, which will move away to expose the vehicle to the Martian sky. Then, as NASA describes it, “The full 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights.” … “On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds.” The Mars Helicopter will fly autonomously, as the distance between Earth and the Red Planet is too great to allow a controller to fly it in real time with a joystick.