Since it is a technology demonstration, the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project.
In order to design a flying vehicle that would actually work on another planet, NASA scientists faced a number of challenges.
"If we were to fly the helicopter as a tech demonstration on something like Mars 2020, we would envision a very small number of flights to prove the aerodynamic and handling characteristics, and the concept of operations, and that would be the end of the demonstration", Watzin said.
After four years of development, NASA managed to reduce the weight to just under four pounds (1.8 kilograms), which will be key to operate the machine in Mars's thin atmosphere.
Perhaps most excitingly, NASA believes that if it is successful and makes it for the Mars 2020 mission, even future astronauts could one-day fly helicopters on Mars.
The mission will also test a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying available resources, understanding the weather and other characteristics that will affect manned missions to the red planet.
The Mars helicopter is capable of whirling 3000 whirls per minute which is roughly 10 times the rate of helicopters we use regularly here in Earth - ensuring a seamless flight despite the massively different conditions on Mars when compared to flight launches on our own planet. Our next rover to Mars will carry the first helicopter ever to fly over the surface of another world.
The miniature aircraft will spin its rotors at about ten times the speed of a terrestrial one, due to the extremely low density of Mars' atmosphere - only about one percent of Earth's.
Once it's there, the rover will drive to a suitable take-off site, detach the helicopter, and drive away. After its batteries are charged and a myriad of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight into history.
"We don't have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time", said Aung. It will get to Mars by attaching to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.
The Mars 2020 is expected to in July 2020 and to reach Mars in February 2021. Its first flight is meant to be short: just a 10-foot climb for 30 seconds before returning to the ground. If the program works as NASA expects, the agency would have a whole new way to explore the Martian surface. "With the added dimension of a bird's-eye view from a 'marscopter, ' we can only imagine what future missions will achieve".