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China just made a mini helicopter for future Mars missions

Will this prototype miniature chopper join Nasa’s Ingenuity helicopter, which is part of the Perseverance mission, on the red planet's surface?

FILE PHOTO: People inspect models of a Mars base and a rover displayed inside the SKP-S shopping mall in Beijing, China September 23, 2020. (REUTERS)

In April this year, Nasa’s Ingenuity helicopter made history when it undertook its first flight in the Martian atmosphere, rising some 10 feet above the planet’s surface. It was humankind’s first successful attempt at flying a powered aircraft in another world.

Now, according to a Reuters report, China has developed a prototype miniature helicopter for surveillance work on future Mars missions, according to its space science agency, following the historic landing of a robotic rover on the red planet a few months ago.

Also read: Soon, Ladakh will have a Mars research and space exploration station

This prototype looks similar to Nasa’s robotic helicopter, the Reuters report explains. According to a photograph posted on the website of China's National Space Science Center, the Chinese prototype has two rotor blades, a sensor-and-camera base and four thin legs. However, there is no solar panel at the top like Ingenuity, the report adds. The agency said the helicopter could be a tool for China's follow-up exploration on Mars, but did not give any further details.

China landed a Mars rover, named Zhurong, in May in its first-ever mission to the planet. This feat made it the second country after the US to do so. NASA's most advanced rover, Perseverance, landed on the planet in February and is currently working on looking for signs of ancient microbial life.

This April 6, 2021 image made available by NASA shows the Perseverance Mars rover, foreground, and the Ingenuity helicopter about 13 feet (3.9 meters) behind.
This April 6, 2021 image made available by NASA shows the Perseverance Mars rover, foreground, and the Ingenuity helicopter about 13 feet (3.9 meters) behind. (AP)

The 240-kg Zhurong, which has six scientific instruments including a high-resolution topography camera, will study the planet's surface soil and atmosphere. Powered by solar energy, the rover will also look for signs of ancient life, including any subsurface water and ice, using a ground-penetrating radar during its 90-day exploration of the Martian surface, a Reuters report explains.  

Ingenuity is part of the Perseverance mission. According to the Reuters report, the challenge for the 1.8 kg (4 pound) Ingenuity is the planet's thin atmosphere, which is just 1% as dense as Earth's. “To compensate for the lack of aerodynamic lift, Nasa engineers equipped Ingenuity with rotor blades that are larger - 1.2 metres (4 feet) tip to tip - and spin more rapidly than would be needed on Earth for an aircraft of its size,” the report adds. 

Ingenuity has made more than 10 outings since its first flight in April, covering a total distance of more than 2 km (approximately 1.2 miles) with a flight time of about 20 minutes so far. China, meanwhile, is planning its first crewed mission to Mars in 2033.

Also read: Perseverance, Hope and a fire god: a history of Mars rovers

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