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NASA's Mars Helicopter Drone Aces First Flight Tests

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The helicopter drone that will accompany the upcoming Mars 2020 rover to the Red Planet is ready for launch.

In January, NASA recreated the conditions in Mars inside the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Space Simulator to test whether the 4-pound technology will be able to fly once it arrives at its destination. The good news is, the technology works.

NASA's Mars Helicopter Takes Off

To test the capabilities of the helicopter, the engineering team behind the mission removed all the nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases from inside the Space Simulator and injected it with carbon dioxide, which is abundant in the Martian atmosphere. They also adjusted the gravity to mimic the conditions on Mars' surface.

The technology performed as expected during the first and second testing.

"We only required a 2-inch (5-centimeter) hover to obtain all the data sets needed to confirm that our Mars helicopter flies autonomously as designed in a thin Mars-like atmosphere; there was no need to go higher," explained Teddy Tzanetos, a test conductor at JPL. " It was a heck of a first flight."

The Mars Helicopter has logged over an hour of flight during testing. According to MiMi Aung, project manager, the technology's next flight will be on the surface of the Red Planet.

NASA's Mars 2020 Launch

The Mars Helicopter will launch alongside the Mars 2020 rover on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket around summer next year. Both technologies are expected to land on the surface of the Red Planet in Feb. 2021.

After touchdown, the Mars Helicopter will be deployed and subjected to another round of test flights before it begins its exploration of Earth's mysterious next-door neighbor.

The goal of the Mars 2020 mission is to answer key questions about the habitability of Mars, not only in the past but also in preparation for the arrival of human settlers. The rover will drill and collect rock and soil samples on Mars' surface and then keep them in a cache for future retrieval.

The mission will also demonstrate technologies, test methods to produce oxygen, identify water sources, and characterize environmental conditions that might affect future manned missions.

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