NASA sending remote-controlled mini-helicopter to Mars

Shown in this illustration is NASA's Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, that is envisioned to travel with the agency’s Mars 2020 rover mission, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. (NASA/JPL-CALTECH handout via AFP)
Updated 12 May 2018
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NASA sending remote-controlled mini-helicopter to Mars

  • Weighing less than 1.8 kg, "The Mars Helicopter" will be attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover
  • The helicopter is equipped with “solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights.”
TAMPA, US: The US space agency said Friday it plans to launch the first-ever helicopter to Mars in 2020, a miniature, unmanned drone-like chopper that could boost our understanding of the Red Planet.
Known simply as “The Mars Helicopter,” the device weighs less than four pounds (1.8 kilograms), and its main body section, or fuselage, is about the size of a softball.
It will be attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover, a wheeled robot that aims to determine the habitability of the Martian environment, search for signs of ancient life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers.
Mars 2020 is planned for launch in July 2020 with an arrival on the surface of Mars expected in February 2021.
“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement.
“The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling.”
No nation has ever flown an helicopter on Mars before.
The undertaking began in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
In order to fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere, the space helicopter has to be super light, yet as powerful as possible.
“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet (12,100 meters),” said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up (30,500 meters),” she added.
Engineers built the copter’s twin, counter-rotating blades to “bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rpm — about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth,” said a NASA statement.
The helicopter is equipped with “solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights.”
Controllers on Earth will command the Mars Helicopter, which was designed to receive and interpret commands from the ground.
Plans are being laid for a 30-day flight test, with five flights going incrementally further each time, up to a few hundred yards (meters).
Its first flight calls for a brief vertical climb of 10 feet (three meters), followed by hovering for a half minute.
NASA views the copter as a “high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration,” it said.
If successful, it could be a model for scouting on future Mars missions, able to access places the human-built rovers cannot reach.
If it fails, it will not impact the Mars 2020 mission.
“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the science mission directorate.
“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.”


Scientists amazed as Canadian permafrost thaws 70 years early

General view of a landscape of partially thawed Arctic permafrost near Mould Bay, Canada, in this handout photo released June 18, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 19 June 2019
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Scientists amazed as Canadian permafrost thaws 70 years early

  • “This premature thawing is another clear signal that we must decarbonize our economies, and immediately”

LONDON: Permafrost at outposts in the Canadian Arctic is thawing 70 years earlier than predicted, an expedition has discovered, in the latest sign that the global climate crisis is accelerating even faster than scientists had feared.
A team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks said they were astounded by how quickly a succession of unusually hot summers had destabilized the upper layers of giant subterranean ice blocks that had been frozen solid for millennia.
“What we saw was amazing,” Vladimir E. Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the university, told Reuters by telephone. “It’s an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years.”
With governments meeting in Bonn this week to try to ratchet up ambitions in United Nations climate negotiations, the team’s findings, published on June 10 in Geophysical Research Letters, offered a further sign of a growing climate emergency.
The paper was based on data Romanovsky and his colleagues had been analizing since their last expedition to the area in 2016. The team used a modified propeller plane to visit exceptionally remote sites, including an abandoned Cold War-era radar base more than 300 km from the nearest human settlement.
Diving through a lucky break in the clouds, Romanovsky and his colleagues said they were confronted with a landscape that was unrecognizable from the pristine Arctic terrain they had encountered during initial visits a decade or so earlier.
The vista had dissolved into an undulating sea of hummocks — waist-high depressions and ponds known as thermokarst. Vegetation, once sparse, had begun to flourish in the shelter provided from the constant wind.
Torn between professional excitement and foreboding, Romanovsky said the scene had reminded him of the aftermath of a bombardment.
“It’s a canary in the coalmine,” said Louise Farquharson, a post-doctoral researcher and co-author of the study. “It’s very likely that this phenomenon is affecting a much more extensive region and that’s what we’re going to look at next.”
Scientists are concerned about the stability of permafrost because of the risk that rapid thawing could release vast quantities of heat-trapping gases, unleashing a feedback loop that would in turn fuel even faster temperature rises.
Even if current commitments to cut emissions under the 2015 Paris Agreement are implemented, the world is still far from averting the risk that these kinds of feedback loops will trigger runaway warming, according to models used by the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
With scientists warning that sharply higher temperatures would devastate the global south and threaten the viability of industrial civilization in the northern hemisphere, campaigners said the new paper reinforced the imperative to cut emissions.
“Thawing permafrost is one of the tipping points for climate breakdown and it’s happening before our very eyes,” said Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International. “This premature thawing is another clear signal that we must decarbonize our economies, and immediately.”