Though the laws of physics indicate it is almost impossible to fly aircraft on Mars, US engineers have invented a helicopter fast enough and light enough to get a bird's eye view of the Red Planet.
After landing four vehicles on Mars that roll around part of the surface of that planet, the goal of engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (JPL-NASA) in Pasadena, California, is to take the next step and explore it from the air.
For J. Bob Balaram, head of engineering for the Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS), flying that mini-drone on another planet will be as historic an event as when the Wright brothers flew the first airplane on Earth.
The Mars Helicopter, which will make flights programmed from Earth, will be carried in the "belly" of the Mars 2020 Rover, a scientific laboratory on wheels that will blast off in the summer of 2020 on a mission to reach the Red Planet in February 2021.
This new 1-ton rover, which repeats the functional design of the Mars Curiosity Rover, will look for signs of microbic life, study the climate and geology and gather samples that someday will hopefully be brought to Earth.
MiMi Aung, project manager of the MHS project, said the main purpose of the Mars Helicopter is to make the first takeoff on Mars to prove it is possible to fly there, and so pave the way for much larger aircraft to do the same.
Those details appear vital now on the 50th anniversary of mankind's first Moon landing and as the US ponders its next landmark event, a NASA mission that for the first time will land astronauts on Mars in the decade of the 2030s.
The graduate in electrical engineering, specialized in such areas of space exploration as Deep Space Signal Processing & Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, spoke of the odds against flying aircraft on Mars with the current method of terrestrial aviation, since that requires wind and Mars has very little.
In addition, atmospheric density is 1 percent of what it is on Earth, the equivalent of trying to fly a helicopter at a more than 30-kilometer (18-mile) altitude, whereas the altitude record for a helicopter on this planet is 12 kilometers, among other gravitational challenges.
The specialists are simulating on Earth the thin atmosphere of Mars in a vacuum chamber where they have now completed the first successful flight trials of the MHS, which has two rotor blades measuring 1 meter (3 feet) in diameter that rotate at 3,000 rpm, much more than the 600 that traditional helicopters need to take off.
The energy needed to power the flight will come from a lithium battery recharged by a fixed solar panel.
A camera for taking high-resolution photos and another for navigation are fitted into a 14x14-centimeter (6x6-inch) container equipped with a heating system to temper the freezing temperatures of nights on Mars, among other environmental adaptations.
Aung said they need high-definition photos of Mars, which can only be obtained from low-altitude flights, since at present it is only possible for space ships to take global images that lack sufficient quality to capture details of the Red Planet's surface.
The engineer said the Mars Helicopter would also serve as a kind of guide for robots and astronauts by mapping the terrain before their arrival, as well as by studying the interior of craters and abysses.
But the final proof will be seeing the MHS flying on Mars, Aung said with reference to the five trial flights they have planned for the drone on the Red Planet.
And according to Balaram, while flying in the atmosphere of another planet will be a historic event, the MHS will be above all a pioneer that will serve to validate the technology, just as occurred with the Sojourner space vehicle, from which humanity received it first detailed images of Mars.
That small robot landed on the Red Planet in 1997 to open the way for the large robots that now explore it with numerous scientific instruments. EFE-EPA im/cd