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NASA engineers attach Mars Helicopter to Mars 2020 rover

By Brooks Hays
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NASA engineers attach Mars Helicopter to Mars 2020 rover
Engineers are photographed working to install the Mars Helicopter inside the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech

Aug. 29 (UPI) -- NASA engineers have installed the miniature helicopter on the space agency's Mars 2020 rover. The Mars Helicopter, nicknamed Scout, will be the first aircraft to fly on another planet.

Earlier this year, NASA Administrator Bridenstine detailed the agency's plans for exploring Mars through the air.

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"For the first time, we are going to fly a helicopter on another world with the Mars Helicopter," Bridenstine said in March.

This week, engineers took another step in realizing that promise, integrating the twin-rotor helicopter and its Mars Helicopter Delivery System into the belly of the rover. Engineers also installed protective elements to shield the solar-powered helicopter from dust and debris that will be kicked up as the rocket boosters fire to slow the rover's descent.

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The helicopter is primarily a proof-of-concept experiment. It it fails to take to the air, the scientific goals of the Mars 2020 mission will not be inhibited. If it succeeds, scientists and engineers will be able to integrate second-generation copters into future scientific missions.

"Our job is to prove that autonomous, controlled flight can be executed in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere," MiMi Aung, engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Mars Helicopter project manager, said in a news release. "Since our helicopter is designed as a flight test of experimental technology, it carries no science instruments. But if we prove powered flight on Mars can work, we look forward to the day when Mars helicopters can play an important role in future explorations of the Red Planet."

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Even without scientific instruments, the helicopter could still aid the forthcoming Mars mission. If it survives the landing and is successfully deployed, the copter could provide reconnaissance services.

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"The helicopter would fly ahead of the rover almost every day, checking out various possible points of interest and helping engineers back on Earth plan the best driving route," NASA announced earlier this year.

NASA plans to land the Mars 2020 rover in Jezero Crater. Like its technological predecessor, the Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Gale Crater since 2012, Mars 2020 will be capable of traveling across rough terrain. But even the hardiest ground-base vehicles can't get up close and personal with some of the Red Planet's extreme features. In the future, helicopters could be used to explore Mars' cliffs, caves and ravines.

Mars 2020 and its Mars Helicopter are scheduled to be carried into space by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket next July. The mid-2020 launch will put the two spacecraft on the Red Planet's surface by February 2021.

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"With this joining of two great spacecraft, I can say definitively that all the pieces are in place for a historic mission of exploration," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "Together, Mars 2020 and the Mars Helicopter will help define the future of science and exploration of the Red Planet for decades to come."

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