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Mars Helicopter Project

Graphic of Mars Helicopter

Mars Helicopter Project for the NASA Mars 2020 Mission is a JPL-led collaborative effort with NASA Ames, Langley, and Glenn Research Centers and AeroVironment, Inc.

Although aerial vehicle concepts for Mars have been proposed since the earliest days of space exploration, the full challenges of flight in the extremely thin, cold, and primarily CO2–based atmosphere of Mars only become apparent after the Viking Lander missions of the 1970s. For approximately two decades afterwards only Mars airplane concepts were studied. Savu and Trifu [12] were among the first to consider the design implications of Mars rotorcraft; however, their work was not carried forward beyond its initial study.

In 2000, Stanford University and JPL, as a tangential off–shoot of Stanford's NASA NIAC–sponsored micro–rotorcraft work attempted a proof–of–concept test of a small rotor under Mars–like atmospheric conditions in a JPL vacuum chamber [7]. No experimental results were published from this initial proof–of–concept test, though video was released at the time. Independently, at approximately the same time, a series of papers were published by NASA Ames Research Center studying the technical challenges of various Mars rotorcraft configurations and other vertical lift planetary aerial vehicles [1, 18, 24, 20].

In 2000, Sikorsky Aircraft and NASA Ames Research Center co–sponsored the AHS International Student Design Competition on the topic of a Mars rotorcraft. Thompson [15] and Datta et al. [3] are summary papers describing respectively the Georgia Tech and University of Maryland Mars rotorcraft design entries. In 2002, the first experimental results for a rotor hover test under Mars–like conditions were published [26] as well as initial CFD predictions [32]. Over the next decade–and–a–half, papers continued to be occasionally published by NASA Ames [19, 25, 21, 22, 23] on the topic of planetary aerial vehicles, both fixed–wing and vertical lift aerial vehicles.

As time went on, interest slowly grew, and papers by other authors, organizations, and countries began to be published on Mars rotorcraft and vertical lift planetary aerial vehicles [17, 13]. In 2014, JPL and AeroVironment published an initial paper on what would ultimately become the conceptual foundation for the current Mars Helicopter effort [2]. The concept has significantly evolved over the past few years but retains many of its core features.

Among some of the analytical and experimental work conducted by the Aeromechanics Office that has been performed in support of, or in complement to, the Mars Helicopter effort has been: rotor performance estimates using a rotorcraft comprehensive analysis [31, 34, 35]; prediction and measurement of flow recirculation generated by rotors in the JPL 25 Ft. Diameter Space Simulator [33]; system–ID analysis support of Mars Helicopter risk reduction model and engineering development model flight dynamics testing in the JPL 25 Ft. Diameter Space Simulator [29, 30]; edgewise forward–flight wind tunnel testing of a surrogate rotor system at Mars–like atmospheric densities in the NASA Ames/ASU Planetary Aeolian Laboratory large low–pressure chamber. Additionally, NASA Ames and Langley rotary–wing vehicle expertise also supported design reviews of the Mars Helicopter during several stages of its development.

In addition to the Mars Helicopter, the Aeromechanics Office has also been active over the past two decades in studying other planetary aerial vehicles.

Mars Helicopter/Rotorcraft References:



Larry Young
NASA Ames Research Center
Moffett Field CA 94035–1000