NASA plans to fly a helicopter on Mars Video

Enlarge ImageA Mars Helicopter prototype undergoes some testing on Earth.                  Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser  CNET

On May 11, NASA announced that a small autonomous rotorcraft will be added to the Mars 2020 mission.

However, its small dimensions will come in handy during its trip to the Red Planet, since the "marscopter" is set to get there attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.

The goal of the Mars Helicopter will be to fly around the Red Planet and to take photographs from a bird's-eye view.

Scientists will remotely operate the craft all the way from Earth, in the same way a drone is operated.

Started in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Mars Helicopter weighs at 1.8 kgs.

BBC notes that existing vehicles on Mars have been wheeled ones bound on the planet's surface, which is prone to running into obstacles.

He likened it to Sojourner, the first Mars rover, which was about the size of a microwave oven and trundled around in 1997.

"A remote-controlled helicopter to Mars Helicopter, created to fly in the rarefied atmosphere of the red planet, weighs 1.8 kg and the size of a small ball". The planet's very thin atmosphere is not ideal for the flying of helicopters.

Controllers on Earth will command the helicopter to take its first autonomous flight after its batteries are charged and tests are conducted, NASA said. It also has twin blades spinning ten times as fast as an average helicopter at 3,000 rpm. The rocket, which will accomplish the mission, is named as United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket.

The helicopter is to make five short flights over 30 days.

Testing whether "heavier than air vehicles" will work on Mars, NASA is looking to add to its long list of groundbreaking achievements.

"We don't have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time", Ms Aung said.

"Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own", Aung explains.

A successful test could open the door to using helicopters as scouts on future missions, surveying terrain that might be hard for rovers to navigate and even accessing locations that are unreachable via ground travel. The six-wheeled rover will hunt for signs of habitable environments as well as sites that may have once hosted microbial life, examining the Red Planet with 23 cameras, a microphone and a drill to collect samples.