No nation has ever flown a helicopter on Mars before.
"Consider it our homage to Voyager", said Andy Klesh, MarCO's chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which built the CubeSats and manages their trailblazing mission on the Red Planet. Following four years of design, testing and re-design, the resulting rotorcraft weighs just under four pounds (1.8 kilograms) and is about the size of a softball.
Because of the thin atmosphere on the Red Planet, the helicopter's blades will spin at nearly 3,000 rpm, approximately ten times faster than on Earth.
The two CubeSats, known together as Mars Cube One (MarCO-A and MarCO-B), are the first of their kind to venture into deep space. The helicopter is equipped with solar cells to charge its lithium batteries and an internal heating mechanism to keep it warm through the Martian night, when temperatures can plummet to minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The helicopter will travel to Mars attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.
The world record helicopter flight is now 40,000 ft (7.5 miles / 12 km).
On May 5, NASA launched two, tiny, briefcase-sized satellites (called cubesats) to Mars, but at least one of them still has an eye for Earth. In order to fly in this environment, the space helicopter has to be super light, yet as powerful as possible.
Once the rover is on the Martian surface, the mission team plan to find a suitable location to deploy the helicopter and place it on the surface.
Controllers on Earth will command The Mars Helicopter, which was created to receive and interpret commands from the ground.
The planned 30-day flight test campaign should include up to five flights of incrementally increasing duration and distances up to a 90 second flight of up to a few hundred meters.
The helicopter's first flight should be a short one: It will climb 10 feet and hover for 30 seconds before returning to the ground.
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", Zurbuchen said.
'We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit.