NASA's Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency's Mars 2020. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has announced it is including a tiny helicopter aboard its Mars 2020 mission, with an eye toward the first flight on a planet beyond Earth.

“The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling,” said Jim Bridenstine, the NASA Administrator.

“After Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world,” added Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Design and testing of the tiny helicopter began in 2013 at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The difficult of flying on Mars would be incredibly low atmospheric density. Accordingly, the design was whittled down to under four pounds, and twin rotor blades that rotate approximately 3,000 times per minutes, or 10 times the requirement on Earth for flight.

“To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we have to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possible be,” said Mimi Aung, the manager of the Mars Helicopter project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The craft is also outfitted with solar cells to charge the lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm on the cold Martian surface.

Additionally, the helicopter will be light minutes away from Earth, so a human hand will not be able to fly it with a joystick in real-time. The craft will instead have an autonomous capability.

The test campaign for the helicopter is projected to last 30 days, starting with a climb to a modest 10 feet, lasting for 30 seconds. Eventually, that will expand to farther  distances, at most a few hundred meters, with trips lasting as much as 90 seconds.

The helicopter will launch on Mars 2020, with an expected arrival on the red planet in February 2021.