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NASA’s Mars Helicopter passed its latest barrage of tests and is almost ready for its trip to the Red Planet, traveling alongside the Mars 2020 rover when the mission launches next year.

This will be the first heavier-than-air vehicle ever to be flown on another planet, so there are a lot of engineering factors to consider. Because Mars has such a thin atmosphere, with just 1% the density of Earth’s, it will drastically change the way that a helicopter moves and handles. But, in theory, if the engineers can ensure the helicopter is sufficiently light and the blades spin fast enough, they believe it will be able to fly.

“Nobody’s built a Mars Helicopter before, so we are continuously entering new territory,” MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in a statement. “Our flight model — the actual vehicle that will travel to Mars — has recently passed several important tests.”

The tests included putting the helicopter in a vacuum chamber at JPL designed to simulate the Martian environment, with temperatures as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-90 degrees Celsius), a very thin atmosphere, and a gravity level 40% that of Earth’s.

The second batch of tests at Lockheed Martin Space in Denver ensured that the helicopter would work with the Mars Helicopter Delivery System which will keep to helicopter held tight to the Mars 2020 rover and deploy it once it reaches the surface.

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NASA’s Mars Helicopter, sitting in a cleanroom at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The aluminum base plate, side posts, and crossbeam around the helicopter protect the helicopter’s landing legs and the attachment points that will hold it to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The aim of the project is to demonstrate the feasibility of the technology rather than to gather scientific data, so the helicopter will not carry any research instruments. But it will be equipped with a high-resolution camera which can take full-color images of the planet as seen from above.

Eventually, scientists want to use helicopters to explore Mars by air, reaching out of the way locations which are hard for rovers to access like caves and deep craters. But first, they need to prove that this first-generation helicopter can fly.

“We expect to complete our final tests and refinements and deliver the helicopter to the High Bay 1 cleanroom for integration with the rover sometime this summer,” Aung said, “but we will never really be done with testing the helicopter until we fly at Mars.”

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