02:57Black Hawk on Red Planet: NASA to Deploy Helicopter on Mars

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

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

"I am not an advocate for the helicopter and I don't believe the Mars 2020 project has been an advocate for the helicopter", he added.

Dubbed the Mars Helicopter, or "marscopter", the small aircraft will accompany the Mars 2020 rover in its exploration of the Martian landscape and be the first heavier-than-air vehicle made on Earth to fly on another planet.

"NASA has a proud history of firsts", NASA's administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said in a statement.

We have rovers on Mars' surface, and orbiters like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter floating around the planet, but we don't have anything flying around the surface of Mars right now.

The finalised machine weighs in at little under four pounds, and its fuselage is slightly larger than a cricket ball.

The remote-controlled Mars Helicopter, created to take flight in the thin Martian atmosphere with twin counter-rotating blades, weighs about four pounds (1.8 kilograms), with a fuselage the size of a softball, NASA said. It will carry solar cells to charge up in the light of the sun and a heating mechanism to endure cold nights on the Red Planet.

Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, says that the altitude record for helicopter flight on Earth is around 40,000 feet.

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"The real challenge is that the Martian atmosphere is very thin-about 1 percent of Earth's atmosphere-which means that it's not going to look like your typical drone in your backyard", Farley said.

The helicopter will ride to Mars attached to the rover's belly pan, officials said.

Once the rover is on the planet surface, a suitable location will be found to deploy the helicopter down from the vehicle and place it onto the ground. The rover will then drive 50 to 100 metres away - close enough to stay in radio contact, far enough to not be endangered by any mishaps. NASA plans to test the craft up to five times over a 30 day period.

"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.

The Martian helicopter will travel with the mission of the Rover of Mars 2020, announced the space agency.

"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", he said. Indeed, future Mars settlements could be constructed within the caverns, protected from the harsh conditions of the Martian surface. That could be useful, for example, for later missions to help spot samples cached by Mars 2020 in order to collect them for return to Earth. The rover is created to carry out geological studies and ascertain the habitability of the Martian environment, NASA said. The mission is predicted to reach Mars in February 2021.

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