NASA is set to send a helicopter to Mars in a landmark test flight of the first “heavier than air” aircraft on another planet.
The small, autonomous aircraft will be blasted into space with the US Space Agency’s Mars Rover in July 2020, a spokesman said.
A team of expert designers spent more than four years shrinking a working helicopter to just 1.8kg (4lbs) or roughly the size of a softball.
The machine’s two blades will spin at 3,000 revolutions a minute - three times faster than an average chopper.
It is specifically designed to fly in the atmosphere of Mars which is 100 thinner than Earth’s.
NASA Administrator Jim Brindenstine hailed the mission a “world first” and said: “The idea of a helicopter flying in the skies of another planet is thrilling.”
He added: “The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”
The helicopter will have no pilot and will be launched into space attached to the Mars Rover.
It runs on lithium batteries and has a specially designed heater to brave the freezing Martian air.
Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, said: “To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinise everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.
“We don’t have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time.
“Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.”
The full 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally further flight distances, up to a few hundred metres.
It will also build up to flights as long as 90 seconds.
On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 3 metres (10 feet) where it will hover for about 30 seconds.
Mars 2020 will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
It is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.
The rover will conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment and search for signs of ancient Martian life.
Scientists will use the instruments aboard the rover to identify and collect samples of rock and soil, encase them in sealed tubes, and leave them on the planet’s surface for potential return to Earth on a future Mars mission.