Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the so-called Mars Helicopter, the name of the US space agency’s self-flying mini copter that will hitch a ride to Mars with the 2020 rover. Its mission? To boldly go where no rover has gone before. The miniature, unmanned drone-like chopper weighs less than 1.8 kg and its main body section, or fuselage, is about the size of a softball (a little larger than a cricket ball), NASA officials said in a press release. It needs to be this compact to fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere, which is 100 times thinner than Earth’s. NASA took over four years to develop this small, autonomous rotorcraft. Bird’s eye view of Mars According to the statement, the helicopter will be attached to the rover, a wheeled robot whose objective is to perform geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine whether the environment is inhabitable, hunt for signs of ancient Martian life, and evaluate natural resources and hazards for human travellers. Scientists will use the rover’s on-board instruments to identify and gather samples of rock and soil, enclose them in sealed tubes and leave them on the surface for possible return to Earth on an upcoming Mars mission. The Mars Helicopter itself will demonstrate the viability of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. Commanded by NASA, it will receive and interpret commands from the ground. The helicopter’s twin, counter-rotating blades are built to “bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3 000 rpm – about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth,” explained the press release. It’s equipped with “solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights.” Quoted by the UK’s ‘Telegraph’, Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager, said: “The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40 000 feet [12 100 metres]. The atmosphere of Mars is only one per cent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100 000 feet [30 500 metres] up.” A model for scouting on future Mars missions The Mars rover mission is scheduled for launch in July 2020. It’s expected to arrive on the surface of Mars in February 2021. This is the first ever attempt to fly a helicopter on the planet. For now, flight test plans are in the works for the chopper. “The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the ‘BBC’. “The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.” With so much fanfare and work being put into the Mars Helicopter, what if it fails? The good news is that it doesn’t impact the 2020 mission. But the rewards far outweigh the risks: access to and images of Martian locations never before witnessed!