By Charly SHELTON
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a community fixture of the Crescenta Valley. Many CV residents work at JPL and many more, from within the Valley and without, venture to the campus during its open house event once a year to see all it has going on. With the staggering demand from the public, JPL has imposed a ticket policy to ensure that everyone who gets in has the ability to see all there is to see.
Recent visitors learned of efforts to explore the farthest reaches of space with planetary science in the Kepler System. Earth Science presentations were made on atmospheric measurements, water heating patterns and even “Visualization of Volcanic Clouds: Eyjafallajökull” – a study on a volcano in Iceland which erupted as recently as 2010.
But the hot ticket mission was right in the middle of all the action at the entryway quad, known as The Mall. This was the area that housed the rovers of the Mars exploration team. And one new addition, slated to go up alongside the new rover on the Mars 2020 mission, had guests abuzz – the Mars Copter.
“I think there was a concept that with aerial mobility on Mars, we could do a lot of things that rovers couldn’t do; getting up to high peaks that they can’t get to, surveying a larger area, taking things to areas a rover can’t go,” said Joe Melko, deputy chief engineer for the helicopter project. “And keep in mind this is not going to do all that, this is just going to prove the technology, a proof of concept. But it’s proving the concept so scientists can then increase what they might be allowed to do on Mars with aerial vehicles.”
The helicopter will launch with the Mars 2020 mission and is only going to do a test flight. One flight proves that the technology can work, and any subsequent successful flights will just be added data to help improve the vehicle for the future. But flying on an alien planet, though seemingly simple enough, brings a whole new set of challenges that the JPL team is set to overcome.
“Most [open house attendees] know that the Martian atmosphere is only 1% of Earth, so they ask, ‘How do you actually fly in that?’ They wander over to talk about it and see how we’re doing,” Melko said. “[And the answer is] we obviously have very oversized blades for the mass of the helicopter, and they’re turning very fast. The good news is Mars helped us a little bit with its three-eighths gravity, so we don’t have to lift quite as much. The motors are very high-performance custom motors and we just put all our energy in really quick. Some people likened it to a dragster – very quick, throws it all in and that’s it.”
Melko added that there was a great interest in the project and Mars exploration overall.
“[There is] tremendous interest. Some people don’t know about [the helicopter] yet, but the ones who do know about it are trying to find it. It’s the next cool thing. Flying on another planet; that’s never been done before. It opens up so many avenues and I think people are [excited].”