CAPE CANAVERAL—In one of his first decisions since joining NASA, newly named administrator Jim Bridenstine has opted to add a small autonomous helicopter to the Mars 2020 mission, a somewhat controversial choice that lacked support from project scientists.                                                                       

NASA has a proud history of firsts,” Bridenstine said in a statement May 11. “The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery and exploration missions to Mars.”

In development since 2013, the 4-lb. (1.8-kg) Mars Helicopter will be a second major technology demonstration conducted during the Mars 2020 mission, which is scheduled for launch in July 2020 and a February 2021 landing.

The mission already includes an in situ resource utilization experiment called Moxie, which will attempt to produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide with a process known as solid oxide electrolysis.

The primary goal of the Mars 2020 rover is to investigate a to-be-determined ancient environment on Mars that could have hosted past or present-day bacterial life. The rover also will cache rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth.

The helicopter will have a relatively short mission, about 30 days in total. “That will happen very early in the mission because the capabilities of the helicopter do not allow it to be maintained on the rover for an extended period,” project scientist Ken Farley, with the California Institute of Technology, told the National Academy of Sciences’ Space Studies Board May 3.

The softball-sized helicopter has solar cells that will charge lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it warm during the cold Martian nights. Its primary payload will be a camera.

“The real challenge is that the Martian atmosphere is very thin—about 1 percent of Earth’s atmosphere—which means that it’s not going to look like your typical drone in your backyard,” Farley said.

Sometime after landing on Mars, the rover will place the helicopter on the ground and drive a safe distance away. During the flight demonstrations, the helicopter’s twin, counter-rotating blades will cut through the Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rpm—about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth. The flight will last only about two minutes until the battery charge runs out. The vehicle will then land and recharge its batteries for about one Martian day (two Earth days), Farley said.

On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet and hover for about 30 sec. The full test campaign will include up to five flights, eventually reaching about 1,000 ft. in distance.

“One possibility that’s being considered is [the helicopter] can be used as a scouting tool to identify interesting terrain to send the rover to,” Farley said.

“I am not an advocate for the helicopter and I don’t believe the Mars 2020 project has been an advocate for the helicopter,” he added. “This is a process that has taken place at NASA Headquarters to decide whether the helicopter should be flown. But I will say everybody agrees it will not put the mission at risk.

“In my opinion, [operating the helicopter] comes right out of the science time,” Farley said. “We are working very hard for efficiencies and spending 30 days working on a technology demonstration that does not further those goals directly, from the science point of view, is a tradeoff that has to be made.”

In a press release, NASA said the Mars Helicopter is “considered a high-risk, high-reward project. If it does not work, the Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted. If it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel.”