NASA helicopter passes key tests on road to Mars flight

An engineer inspects the helicopter NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will carry to the red planet. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Mars Helicopter, a two-rotor, 1.8 kilogram (4 pound) aircraft hitching a ride to the red planet aboard the space agency’s Mars 2020 rover, has come through key tests with flying colours, giving engineers more confidence the small chopper will successfully demonstrate flight in the ultra-thin martian atmosphere.

In January, the flight model was operated in a simulated martian environment and then shipped to a Lockheed Martin facility in Colorado where it was subjected to launch and flight vibrations and sounds to verify electrical connections and other mechanisms will withstand the rigours of launch and atmospheric entry. It was then sent back to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on 11 May for additional testing.

A new solar panel was installed on top of the helicopter and its rotors were spun up “to ensure that the more than 1,500 individual pieces of carbon fiber, flight-grade aluminium, silicon, copper, foil and aerogel continue to work as a cohesive unit,” NASA said in a news release.


The helicopter is a technology demonstration project and as such it will not carry any scientific instruments. It is intended to demonstrate the feasibility of powered flight in the martian atmosphere, which has 1 percent the density of Earth’s. But, like readily available drones on Earth, it does carry a camera that will provide high-resolution colour images.

With the environmental testing and other tests behind it, engineers plan to attach the helicopter to the rover later this summer. Launch is scheduled for July 2020.

“We expect to complete our final tests and refinements and deliver the helicopter to the High Bay 1 clean room for integration with the rover sometime this summer,” said Mimi Aung, technology demonstration project manager. “But we will never really be done with testing the helicopter until we fly at Mars.”

The Mars 2020 rover is a virtual twin of NASA’s Curiosity rover, but it will carry a different suite of instruments focused on searching for evidence of biological activity in the distant past. It also will test a technique for extracting oxygen from the martian atmosphere and cache rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth by a future spacecraft.

An artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 rover on the surface of the red planet. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has placed a webcam in High Bay 1 showing the Mars 22 rover as engineers complete its assembly.