How to Fly a Helicopter on Mars

To perceive the monumental job of flying an plane on Mars, one wants to take into account the environment. The Red Planet’s common atmospheric stress on the floor is about 6 millibars (zero.09 psi), lower than zero.06 % of the air stress at sea degree on Earth. To put it one other approach, the environment on Mars on the planet’s floor is as skinny as our planet’s air at 100,000 ft of altitude. Helicopters have by no means flown that prime. The altitude report for a rotorcraft stands at simply over 40,000 ft, and through that flight the engine flamed out and the pilot had to land utilizing autorotation.

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Mars flight is just not going to be simple. Yet NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory desires to fly a chopper on the Red Planet, the place the air on the bottom is thinner than atop the very best mountains of Earth.

Getting Off the Ground

“It first started with demonstrating lift,” says Mimi Aung, JPL’s Mars Helicopter undertaking supervisor. NASA estimates the small craft might keep airborne for about 90 seconds within the Martian air, however even that minute and a half of carry will push the bounds of recent electronics and supplies science.

The main approach to obtain carry with a rotorcraft in skinny air is to spin the blades very quick. The Mars Helicopter’s rotors will function between 2,300 and a couple of,800 rpm, relying on the atmospheric density on the touchdown web site, which is 5 to ten instances quicker than the rotor velocity of a median helicopter.

Diagram of the Mars Helicopter.


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To spin the blades that quick, you want energy. The Mars Helicopter drivetrain will likely be powered by eight electrical motors: one brushless DC motor to spin every of the 2 rotors, and three brushed DC motors to actuate every rotors’ swash plate, that are the mechanisms that management the motion of the rotor blades. Each motor is barely about two inches in diameter, and each ounce of juice counts.

“We made the motors very efficient,” Aung says. “They’re custom-designed motors and motor control algorithms to squeeze out every percentage of efficiency we can get, because in terms of flying a helicopter, the mass and the power and energy are all integrated.”

The complete design is catered to the distinctive surroundings of Mars. Twin 1.2-meter, contra-rotating, two-bladed rotors successfully eradicate the consequences of torque as they spin in reverse instructions, canceling one another out. A contra-rotating system additionally will increase effectivity by roughly 10 % thanks to elevated airflow generated by the highest rotor.

Perhaps the most important problem, greater than energy or rotor effectivity, is getting the craft’s weight as little as completely doable. “The big thing is to have the strength while still being very light,” Aung says.

The decreased gravity on Mars (about 38 % of Earth’s gravity) will assist JPL pack a few extra elements onto the Mars Helicopter. But even so, your entire automobile should weigh lower than 1.Eight kilograms (four lbs). JPL engineers lower weight by constructing the first structural elements out of carbon fiber, together with carbon rotors with foam cores and carbon tube touchdown legs.

Concept picture of the Mars Helicopter on the floor of the planet.


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For a lot of the remainder of the craft, NASA took benefit of “advancements in commercial, off-the-shelf components that are lightweight, that really didn’t exist 15 years ago,” Aung says. The sensors, cameras, and laptop chip elements are “cellular phone class” electronics that had been examined in a high-radiation surroundings to verify they’ll operate on Mars.

“It’s a mixture of inheriting lightweight commercial off-the-shelf components… and then combine with some pretty clever, basically algorithmic and technical optimization, and custom components that we have to make,” Aung says.

The six-cell lithium-ion battery pack, which is able to account for a lot of the helicopter’s weight, has a peak energy functionality of 510 W. The electronics are to be housed within the craft’s boxy fuselage with thermal coating and heaters to maintain every part heat by the frigid Martian nights. The Mars Helicopter will draw all its energy from the solar, utilizing a photo voltaic panel mounted on a stationary mast above the highest rotor. Aung says these photo voltaic cells are one other piece of know-how that may not have been environment friendly sufficient 10 or 15 years in the past to make Mars flight doable.

During the undertaking’s first flight—a 1/Three-scale demonstrator inside a 25-foot stress chamber at JPL that simulates the Mars surroundings—the workforce proved that carry within the wispy air of Mars is feasible. The subsequent step was much more difficult.

Under Control

No human will likely be piloting the Mars Helicopter. “We can’t joystick from Earth,” Aung says. “It’s too far.” Even on the velocity of sunshine, a radio sign from Mars takes four to 24 minutes to make the interplanetary journey. The craft should take off and land in a fraction of that point, so the Mars Helicopter will likely be on its personal.

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Autonomous flight is a comparatively new know-how on Earth. On Mars, every part adjustments.

“That was a question of whether it was feasible at all,” Aung says. “A blade moving through the thin air, and the dynamics, the way the vehicle responds, you know, it moves in response to the blades hitting the air—that dynamics behavior is different than when you’re working through a very thick atmosphere. So, we had to go back to the basic principles.”

Diagram of the rotor meeting for the Mars Helicopter.


To simplify issues, the Mars Helicopter will fly solely in calm circumstances with little wind. Even so, managed flight within the alien environment will likely be a main problem. To dial within the autonomous flight controls, JPL nearly simulated the Martian environment utilizing computational fluid dynamics, testing out cross sections of the rotor constructions to see how they behave. Data from these fashions is fed into the Mars Helicopter’s flight management laptop, permitting the craft to reply to the skinny environment’s results on rotor efficiency.

“Because we’ve never built a helicopter for Mars before—nobody has—the interesting thing is, how do you test it?” Aung says.

JPL has been doing its darnedest to simulate what the Mars Helicopter will expertise. NASA constructed a full-scale prototype to check within the 25-foot chamber at JPL, and as well as to reducing the atmospheric stress to Mars-like ranges, JPL pumped carbon dioxide into the chamber to simulate the composition of Martian air, which is 95 % CO2.

The engineers truly constructed a third prototype to show they will, in truth, pack all of the electronics, flight controls, rotor elements, and physique constructions into a 1.Eight-kilogram automobile. Then, to approximate the decreased gravity on Mars, a few of the elements of the prototype had been eliminated to lower the load. Then they flew it once more. And once more. And once more.

Mars Helicopter prototype hovering in a 25-foot vacuum chamber at JPL.


Even in spite of everything these exams, the query of whether or not or not the helicopter drone will fly on Mars can solely be answered when it reachers that rust-colored world. Because the efficiency is in the end unknown, the Mars Helicopter is a know-how demonstrator—a tagalong mission with the Mars 2020 rover that, if it fails totally, is not going to have an effect on NASA’s flagship mission to the Red Planet.

Red Skies and Beyond

JPL is within the technique of designing the ultimate Mars Helicopter, which it’ll construct and check over the subsequent two years earlier than launch in the summertime of 2020. The rover, with the helicopter strapped to its stomach pan, will arrive on the Red Planet after a six-month flight by house. It will contact down utilizing the identical propulsive entry, descent, and touchdown (EDL) system because the Curiosity rover—popularly often known as the Sky Crane.

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After deploying the Mars Helicopter, Mars 2020 will rove off to research the geography of Mars for years to come—however for the helicopter, the clock begins instantly. The workforce plans to fly the craft up to 5 instances throughout the 30-sol (Martian day) testing window, attaining progressively longer flights that culminate in a 90-second cruise by the Martian skies to cowl a distance of a few a whole bunch of meters.

For the primary flight, the little helicopter will hover at Three meters up for 30 seconds, turning into the primary heavier-than-air craft to fly on one other planet. If that does not sound spectacular, needless to say the Wright Brothers’ first flight over the fields of Kitty Hawk lasted solely 12 seconds.

“We want to prove feasibility of Mars flight,” Aung says. “We’ve proven it in our chamber right here… however actually, what’s necessary to us, is to have the opportunity to present that sure, it does fly the way in which we modeled it within the precise Mars surroundings.”

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If the Mars Helicopter actually soars, then the longer term implications may very well be profound. Opening up air journey by alien skies would add the lacking third dimension of planetary exploration.

“On Earth, we have cars and trains on the surface, and we have spacecraft in space, but we definitely utilize the aerial dimension. … Likewise in space exploration, we explore on the surface now with rovers and spacecraft in space, but adding the aerial dimension would really give us… [a way to] aid the rovers and even humans, the humans exploring on the surface.”

Extraterrestrial plane might scout the floor of a world in a lot larger element than an orbiting satellite tv for pc, or attain inaccessible elements of a planet—”like steep cliffs, very steep volcanoes, harsh terrain, or caves—places that we can’t get to with rovers or humans,” Aung says.

Scientists are already speaking about sending a rotorcraft to Saturn’s moon Titan, the place it might take off and land a number of instances on the icy floor and methane seas, offering an alien chicken’s-eye view of that mysterious world. It may very well be a lot simpler to fly within the thick environment of Titan than the threadbare air of Mars.

Orville Wright as soon as mentioned: “The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.”

Now it is time to take that need past the confines of Earth, to climb up from the alien mud and soar by the skies of different worlds.

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