NASA Attaches Helicopter Drone to Mars 2020 Rover


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NASA is still busy integrating the systems that will let the new Mars 2020 rover explore the red planet, but engineers took time to hook up the rover’s sole passenger this week: the Mars Helicopter. The small experimental aircraft is now installed on the belly of the rover, ready to ride the larger robot down to the surface of Mars. Once there, it will, hopefully, make history as the first-ever aircraft to fly on another planet.

 NASA began developing the Mars Helicopter Scout concept several years before rover assembly. After testing showed the design was viable, the agency secured $23 million in funding to make it a reality in time for the summer 2020 rover launch. The Mars Helicopter won’t include any scientific instruments because it’s considered a technology demonstration. NASA doesn’t want to trust any vital tasks to the first aircraft to ever fly on Mars. The solar-powered helicopter will have a camera, which could help the rover navigate around rough terrain and obstacles. 

To install the helicopter and its deployment system, engineers at NASA JPL had to flip Mars 2020 on its back. The rover is upside-down in the image above, giving the team access to the bottom surface for helicopter mounting. The rover will drop the Mars Helicopter Scout on the surface after its landing at Jezero Crater in 2021. In the meantime, a cover shield will remain in place to protect the helicopter during launch and landing. 

NASA has tested the helicopter in a vacuum chamber here on Earth. The chamber dropped to Mars-like atmospheric pressure, which makes it harder to generate lift. However, the Mars Helicopter Scout is just 4 pounds (1.8 kg). While we can’t change gravity, NASA used a “gravity offload system” that tugs upward on the rover to make it behave as if it were lighter. The helicopter successfully hovered in the chamber, so the team thinks it will be able to fly on Mars. 

After deployment on the surface, the Mars Helicopter Scout will fly up to five times over a month. Although, NASA has a habit of designing robots that far outlive their original mission parameters. The helicopter might take more flights than anyone is expecting. A successful test of the helicopter on Mars could mean much more ambitious flying robots will head to the red planet in the future. A flying probe could reach perilous cliffs, deep craters, and other locations inaccessible to a wheeled rover.

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NASA Tests Mars 2020 Robotic Arm With ‘Biceps Curls’


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Slowly but surely, the Mars 2020 rover is taking shape at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Engineers have attached some of the rover’s many cameras, its wheels, and now it’s time to give its robotic arm a test run. This arm will have to do some heavy lifting on the red planet, so NASA is having it do some biceps curls on Earth. It’s actually studying how the rover will maneuver its hefty sensor turret, but the action looks a whole lot like the rover pumping iron. 

The Mars 2020 rover will have a 7-foot (2.1 meters) robotic arm similar to the one on Curiosity. It sports five electrical motors and five joints: the shoulder azimuth, shoulder elevation, elbow, wrist, and turret. NASA has to make sure it all works perfectly before launch because the arm isn’t just there for pumping iron.

At the end of the rover’s arm, engineers have mounted a raft of important tools and sensors like the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) and Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL). The arm is also home to the WATSON camera, which will provide us with Curiosity-style selfies of Mars 2020. We certainly can’t have that fail. 

The instrument package at the end of the arm weighs in at 88 pounds (40 kilograms) here on Earth. The new test, which you can see in video form below, was JPL’s first opportunity to see how the arm behaved with all the components connected. The arm moved smoothly between a deployed and stowed configuration. The arm will only weigh about a third as much on Mars, but the team is still making sure it’s robust enough to operate under Earth gravity. A great deal of Mars 2020’s science will depend on that arm reaching out and touching the red planet with its sensors and percussive drill. 

NASA still has a lot of work ahead of it before the rover can head off in search of adventure. If everything goes as planned. Mars 2020 will launch from Earth in July 2020 during an advantageous alignment of Earth and Mars. It will reach Mars in February 2021 to begin its one-year mission (687 Earth days). If Mars 2020 is anything like Curiosity, on which it is based, this rover will outlast the initial mission duration.

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