We're Sending a Helicopter to Mars

Artist rendering of the Mars 2020 rover (background) and its partner, the Mars Helicopter (foreground), shown resting on the ground between flights.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Get ready for your next big Martian adventure!

It's not a Hollywood epic about the stranding and rescue of a lone astronaut, but a real-world expedition: the Mars 2020 rover mission.

And NASA's newest robot explorer isn't going alone. Mars 2020 is being accompanied by the first-of-its-kind Mars Helicopter. Yes, in this case, NASA saved its innovation for the engineering, not the nomenclature.

Mars Helicopter

In late January, the fully assembled softball-sized, 4-pound robot with twin rotors was tested at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

In a chamber that replicates the actual conditions on Mars that the helicopter must endure, temperatures were set as low as minus-130 degrees Fahrenheit, with a simulated atmosphere of carbon dioxide equivalent to the atmospheric pressure at 100,000 feet on Earth. (The highest altitude reached by a helicopter here on this planet was 29,000 feet, where it landed on the peak of Mount Everest.)

Artist depiction of the Mars Helicopter in flight on Mars.
Artist depiction of the Mars Helicopter in flight on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Even Mars' lower-surface gravity, one-third of Earth's, was simulated during test flights, with a special tether providing a constant upward tug.

Mars Helicoper passed its two hovering test flights with flying colors, so to speak. The next time the helicopter takes off will be on Mars, in early 2021.

The Future of Martian Flight

Mars Helicopter is accompanying its mother-ship rover as a demonstration of technology that can be put to use on future missions -- a beta test to see how well the technology performs on Mars, and to learn what features and capabilities might be included in next-generation copters.

Rovers are great for getting around on the surface of another planet, but the six-wheeled robots can't roam everywhere; some terrain is navigationally challenging or simply impassable.

But a rover with a tiny solar-powered, flying camera-bot can deploy it to get close looks at intriguing geological features, scout what's on the other side of hills and ridges that the rover can't get to, and maybe even collect rock and soil samples over a wide range of territory.

Mars scientists are probably waking up late at night imagining how to put future whirly-bots to use.

Mission of Mars 2020

The exploration of Mars has been an exciting ongoing adventure for the past several decades, but Mars 2020 has the potential to deliver the most exciting news yet: evidence of past Martian life. Not since the Viking landers conducted inconclusive experiments to detect signs of present life has a mission looked for Martians.

Physically modeled after the rover Curiosity, which is presently looking for, and finding, clues to Mars' past watery climate, one of Mars 2020's objectives is to look for signs of anything that might have lived in those ancient seas and lakes.

Diagram of Mars 2020's suite of instruments designed to look for the chemical residues of past Martian life, assess the climate, and investigate the geology at its landing site.
Diagram of Mars 2020's suite of instruments designed to look for the chemical residues of past Martian life, assess the climate, and investigate the geology at its landing site. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Along with a suite of highly advanced scientific instruments, the rover is also carrying an experiment, MOXIE, to produce oxygen from Mars' atmospheric carbon dioxide to test how future human explorers might produce breathable oxygen from the Martian environment.

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Carrying On a Long Legacy of Mars Crawling

With each successive landing mission, NASA adds something new to the conversation about the exploration of Mars.

In 1976, the Viking missions achieved the first successful landings on Mars, allowing for our first surface-view of the planet. They also attempted, optimistically, to find life.

In 1997, Pathfinder carried the first rover, Sojourner, to set wheels on Martian dirt, and the 330 feet it traveled from rock to rock at the time felt like a marathon.

In the final days of its 15-year trek on Mars, the rover Opportunity captured this sweeping panorama from its final resting place in Perseverance Valley.
In the final days of its 15-year trek on Mars, the rover Opportunity captured this sweeping panorama from its final resting place in Perseverance Valley. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/ASU)

In 2004, Spirit and Opportunity were the first wheels-on-the-ground expedition to search for signs of past water on Mars, culminating in a spectacular 15-year, 26-mile odyssey of discovery by Opportunity.

The 2012 landing of Curiosity kicked off the first mission to take us on a tour through time, reading the pages of Mars' climate history through sedimentary layers going back a couple billion years.

And the most recent mission, InSight, will give us our first look inside Mars, straight to the core.

Launch and Landing

The Mars 2020 mission, rover and helicopter, will launch in July 2020, with a landing projected for February 2021.

From all that we now know about Mars' once more Earth-like conditions, about the tenacity and adaptability of extremophile life forms on Earth, and about the efficacy of the formation of organic compounds under the right conditions, scientists are optimistic that Mars 2020 could find evidence of life.

And while I'd love to see microscopic pictures of Martian microbe fossils, I'll settle for any chemical residues left in rock that we can point to and say:

There was life here!