Early this month, a team of scientists at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada-Flintridge completed test flights on a new type of helicopter.
That helicopter’s next stop – the red planet.
“The next time it flies it will fly on Mars,” said Scott Newbern, chief technology officer with AeroVironment Inc., which collaborated with JPL staff on the Mars helicopter.
For AeroVironment, the Simi Valley unmanned aircraft manufacturer, the significance of taking part in the Mars helicopter project are twofold. One is that it sets up a business proposition of using its technology on other planets. The second is in using the project to market the company and its cutting-edge work in the hunt for other contracts and employees.
Newbern drew a parallel to college basketball’s Final Four. Young players watch and want to play for the teams that make it that far. So, too, do young engineers want to come to a company doing the latest and greatest in aerospace technology, Newbern said.
“Being able to create that kind of inspiration is great to be a part of,” he added.
The helicopter will land on Mars in February 2021, attached to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. A few months later, it will be deployed and test flights up to 90 seconds long will begin.
It will be the first aircraft ever to fly on another planet. The mission of the 2020 rover, however, is not dependent on the helicopter being able to fly.
“The rover can fully operate its missions without the helicopter,” Newbern said. “With the helicopter, we can be more efficient in how the rover does its business.”
Staff at JPL manage the helicopter project for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the directorate, said the helicopter will be a low-flying scout in advance of the rover that can access locations not reachable by ground travel.
It can serve that role for the Mars rover and for future missions.
“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” Zurbuchen said in a statement. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”
For years, the primary client base for AeroVironment’s small, hand-launched drones has been the U.S. military and allies.
Joseph De Nardi, an aerospace analyst for Stifel Nicolaus & Co. Inc., said that working on the Mars helicopter helps AeroVironment diversify its client base.
“That they are able to apply some of the R&D to other projects like this that sound very interesting,” De Nardi said. “I would guess they kind of look for tangential opportunities to use that for nonmilitary customers.”
AeroVironment and JPL have a heritage of collaborating on projects. The facility is managed by Pasadena-based California Institute of Technology, from which a number of senior executives, including late founder Paul MacReady, are graduates.
“AeroVironment’s deep, rich and diverse history of innovation combined with our experience with near-space aircraft like Pathfinder and Helios make us uniquely suited to collaborate with NASA and JPL on this historic, interplanetary venture,” Chief Executive Wahid Nawabi said in a statement.
Getting called to work on the Mars helicopter was a result of a round of exploratory thinking in collaboration with JPL, Newbern said.
“It is just sort of a who you know and keeping close contact with people in the community who are working on these kinds of things,” he added.
AeroVironment contributed to the space vehicle’s airframe and major subsystems, including its rotor, rotor blades, hub and control mechanism hardware. While the company has experience with flight controls, that was handled by JPL.
The atmospheric conditions on Mars are roughly the equivalent to what it would be like flying the helicopter at 100,000 feet on Earth. AeroVironment has experience with that altitude with the long-endurance aircraft it has manufactured.
“The propellers on those aircraft operate very similarly to the rotors on the Mars helicopter design,” Newbern said.
The rover carrying the helicopter will land on the red planet’s surface with a parachute. Once on the ground, a protective shield is dropped away from the helicopter. A robotic arm holding it in place releases the rotorcraft a short distance onto the ground.
“The rover actually crawls away from it to allow it a clear shot to take off,” Newbern said.
The test flights of the helicopter completed this month required the use of the Space Simulator, a 25-foot-wide vacuum chamber that sucks out all the nitrogen, oxygen and other gases from the air inside the mammoth cylinder and replaces it with carbon dioxide, the chief ingredient of Mars’ atmosphere.
MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at AeroVironment, said watching the helicopter in the chamber reminded her of other space vehicles that have been there, including the three previous Mars rovers.
“To see our helicopter in there reminded me we are on our way to making a little chunk of space history,” Aung said in a statement.