SPACE FLYER: The helicopter that will travel with Nasa’s Mars 2020 rover, scheduled to be launched in July 2020. The helicopter will take pictures and demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Cape Town - The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) plans to send a small helicopter to Mars in 2020 in the continued quest to discover life on the Red Planet, said Dr Japie van Zyl of Nasa’s jet propulsion laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

Van Zyl, one of the world’s leading space scientists, was speaking at the department of electrical and electronics engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU) this week.

He is an alumnus of SU and a recipient of an honorary doctorate from the university. Van Zyl played a leading role in the successful Curiosity mission to Mars in 2012.

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Providing some detail on how the new process would work, he said the helicopter would be mounted on the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. The rover still has to be named.

“Once the rover lands on Mars it will drive to a flat spot and drop the helicopter about 100m away. The helicopter will carry a cellphone camera that will take pictures, which will be downloaded through the rover,” Van Zyl said. The helicopter would fly for 90 seconds a day. He said the rover would be able to go down cliffs to collect data. In addition to the helicopter, the Mars 2020 rover would have thicker and more durable wheels than its predecessor.

“The rover will also land closer to where we want to be because driving is still a bit slow - 50 to 100m a day. If you cut out driving, you can save a lot of time for doing science.”

Van Zyl said the rover would collect samples of rock, put them in tubes, and leave them on the surface of Mars so they could be picked up in future missions and brought back to earth.

Aims of the Mars 2020 mission were to look for suitable land for humans to live on, and to identify environments that had been capable of hosting microbial life.

“We are picking a place that appears to be an ancient hot spring they are typically places where you find microbial life.

“We’re going to seek signs of possible past microbial life in those environments.

"This time our instruments are designed to look for signs of past life and to detect residue left behind by microbial life in rocks. We’re building instruments to make oxygen out of the air by basically using carbon dioxide, which is 97% or 98% of the Martian atmosphere. We’re taking the first step to prepare for taking humans to Mars.”

Of the InSight mission, launched recently to find out what the inside of Mars looks like, and whether it still has a liquid core, Van Zyl said: “There’s a whole lot of water on Mars.”

* Alec Basson is in Stellenbosch University’s Corporate Communication Division.

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