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NASA's Mars helicopter performs flight tests

WASHINGTON: NASA's Mars helicopter, designed for use in a thin atmosphere and low gravity, has successfully completed its flight testing and is ready for the journey to the Red Planet, which is scheduled to launch in 2020, the US Space Agency said.

The helicopter weighing no more than 1.8 kilograms is a technological demonstration project currently undergoing the rigorous verification process that certifies it for Mars.

The majority of the tests the aircraft model undergoes had to do with demonstrating its operation on Mars, including performance at Mars-like temperatures, Nasa said in a statement.

The helicopter has to work in extremely cold temperatures, even on nights with minus temperatures of up to minus 90 degrees.

The helicopter is expected to reach the surface of the Red Planet in February 2021

, when Mars moored Rover firmly under its belly in 2020.

A few months later, it will be deployed and test flights will begin – the first of the surface of another world, Nasa said.

"Before the first flight on Mars, we completed over 75 minutes of flight time with a design model approaching our helicopter," said MiMi Aung, Project Manager for the Mars helicopter at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US.

"But this recent test of the model aircraft was the real deal, this is our helicopter destined for Mars, we had to see it work as advertised," Aung said.

While flying helicopters is commonplace here on Earth, flying hundreds of millions of miles in the thin Martian atmosphere is quite another.

Creating the right conditions for testing here on Earth poses its own challenges.

"The Martian atmosphere has only about one percent of Earth's density," Aung said.

"Our test flights could have a similar atmospheric density on Earth – if you set up your airfield at 30,480 meters, so you can not go anywhere and find that, you have to do it," she said.

The team created a vacuum that suctions all the nitrogen, oxygen and other gases from the air inside the mammoth cylinder. In its place, the team injected carbon dioxide, the main constituent of the Martian atmosphere.

"It's only part of the challenge to bring our helicopter into an extremely thin atmosphere," said Teddy Tzanetos, test director for the Mars Helicopter at JPL.

"To really simulate flying on Mars, we need to take two-thirds of Earth's gravity away, because the gravity of Mars is so much weaker," Tzanetos said.

The team achieved this with a gravity unloading system – a motorized lanyard attached to the top of the helicopter delivering a continuous pull equal to two-thirds of Earth's gravity.

The first flight of the Mars helicopter was followed the next day by a second one in the vacuum chamber. In total, more than 1,500 individual parts made of carbon fiber, flyaluminum, silicon, copper, foil and foam with a flying time of five centimeters in five centimeters height were proved as a coherent unit.

"Next time we fly, we will fly to Mars," Aung said.

The Mars helicopter will launch in July 2020 as a technology demonstrator with the Mars 2020 rover on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It is expected that Mars will be reached in February 2021.

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