NASA’s Cool, Tiny Space Helicopter Will Explore Mars

NASA put the first man on the moon, built an international space station, made the Hubble Space Telescope (which still gives us gorgeous shots of the universe), yadda yadda. Those are old news, right? But then, as I’ve recently been thinking about it, I realize the people at NASA just never seem to run out of surprises throughout the decades. They went surprisingly sustainable, announcing the launch of a recycled supply rocket. They went surprisingly cute, making their satellites capture pictures of more than a million penguins. They even have a (non-surprisingly) fantastic podcast.

Another one is coming from NASA in a tiny gift box. A four-pound autonomous space helicopter will be launched alongside their 2020 rover mission to Mars. And the experimental device is only the size of a softball!

Traveling at the speed of light, it’ll still take several minutes for any commands sent from Earth to reach the helicopter, so the flying rover will have to be at least partially autonomous as it provides scientists and other autonomous vehicles with the first long-term bird’s-eye view of the planet.

NASA made the tiny space helicopter carry batteries and other hardware that were customized to be as light as possible. And aside from being incredibly light, the device also needs to have incredibly fast mechanisms or functions in order to survive the conditions in Mars.

[T]he Martian atmosphere is practically non-existent. The air pressure at the planet’s surface is lower than it is at a helicopter’s maximum altitude when flying above Earth. In order to take off, the tiny flying robot needs to spin it’s two blades ten times faster — 3,000 times per minute — than it would on Earth[.]

Once the new rover and its passenger — the tiny space helicopter — reach Mars in 2021, they will be scanning for signs of life, identifying hazards for future astronauts, and assisting other ground-based rovers in ongoing geology research.

By then, all of us should prepare for more Martian surprises in store. Again, care of NASA’s coolness.

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