Educator Features

Helicopters on Mars? Why Not?
03.25.04
smart rotorcraft field assistants
Smart rotorcraft field assistants for Planetary Science
3-D Exploration!

Researchers want a vehicle that can cover ground quickly but also move slowly to examine an area. They want a vehicle that can "see" large areas from a height, but get down to the ground when they find something interesting. A rover can't do this because it can't fly. A normal airplane can't do this because it can't land just anywhere. But a helicopter can!

Despite Mars having a thin, cold, carbon-dioxide atmosphere operating a rotorcraft is entirely possible -- the low gravity helps somewhat, but the real secret is ultra-lightweight hardware components. Mars has a varied terrain, which makes surface vehicles difficult or impossible to operate. Rotorcraft could fly over the terrain low and slow enough to observe and film it.

NASA has been investigating and developing unmanned helicopters to land on and to assist in the exploration of Mars.

One project investigates putting autorotating rotors on capsule-type reentry vehicles. Ames proposes to apply rotary-wing decelerators to lifting-body, or "space plane," type configurations to slow them down for the initial landing on the surface.

Another project is examining the flight of birds and insects for possible ideas to apply to unmanned helicopters which would be used to explore Mars ' surface.

A third project is developing an unmanned helicopter outfitted with robotic tools to assist scientists in collecting data from Mars. These helicopters are initially tested in areas which are similar to Mars surface, such as Devon Island, Canada.

Coaxial Helicopter
Coaxial helicopter at "Fortress" Rock on Devon Island
Did You Know?

  • That helicopters are safer than airplanes.

  • That if the engine stops, the helicopter rotor continues to spin allowing the machine to slowly land, usually without crashing.

  • Modern day helicopters are no more difficult to fly than many types of fixed wing airplanes.

  • Helicopters are safest to fly in bad weather because they can slow down, stop and/or fly backwards or sideways.

  • Over 3 million lives have been saved by helicopters in both peacetime and wartime operations since the first person was rescued from the sea in 1944.

  • U.S. police and emergency rescue helicopters transport about 15,000 patients each year. This ability to move sick and/or injured people to the hospital saves thousands of lives.

  • There are more than 11,000 civil helicopters in the U.S.

  • There are more than 15,000 civil helicopters operating in more than 157 other countries around the world.

  • If you include military helicopters it is estimated that there are more than 45,000 operating worldwide.

  • Helicopters can be flown across oceans if additional fuel is made available or in-flight refueling is employed.

  • If you want to travel 300 to 400 miles the helicopter is often the quickest means of transportation.

  • Tilting the main rotors enables the helicopter to lift, go forward, backwards or sideways. The power provided by the engine is principally used to turn the rotors.

  • Helicopters have been flying in the United States since 1939.


  • Possible Careers Working with Rotorcraft

    Researchers - investigate & discover better ways of doing things
    Designers - create new helicopter designs: body, engine, cockpit
    Engineers - build helicopters
    Mechanics - take care of & fix the helicopter so it runs properly
    Pilots - fly the helicopter
    Others - may ride in a helicopter to do their jobs - medical people, aerial photographers, police, firemen, news reporters, etc.

    What Jobs Do Helicopters Do?

    Law Enforcement - Police use them to chase and catch criminals and to protect America's borders and waters.
    News Reporting - Reporters use them to film events and check on traffic from above, without getting stuck in the traffic.
    Emergency Medical Services - Helicopters can land anywhere and are often the only way to get a patient to a hospital quickly.
    Heavy Lift - Helicopters can carry very heavy objects hanging on a line below them and place them precisely where they need to go.
    Fire fighting - Helicopters can carry and drop water on a fire exactly where the firefighters want.
    Sightseeing - Helicopters carry people to see beautiful scenery from above - that you might not be able to see from the ground.
    Photography/Filming - Helicopters are used for filming parts of movies and taking pictures from the air.
    Crop dusting - Helicopters can spray small fields to help them grow, prevent bugs from eating them and prevent frost, and even to help the fruit drop off trees.
    Animal herding - Helicopters are used to move animals around and to allow vets to administer medicine.
    Search and Rescue - Helicopters are used to find lost people and rescue them.
    Logging - Helicopters are used to move logs from the forests to the processing plants without damaging the forests by making roads.
    Heli-skiing & Tourism - Helicopters are used to drop people off in areas where cars can't reach such as mountain tops.
    Military - Helicopters are used in combat to protect America's interests and to help victims by dropping food and medicine.
    Space Exploration - Helicopter robots could be used to explore and document the surfaces of Mars, Titan, and Venus.

    What Does NASA Do with Rotorcraft?

    Army and NASA engineers have worked together for over 30 years at Ames Research Center to make rotorcraft fly faster, quieter, and safer in all kinds of weather. We develop high-tech stuff for both military and civil helicopters, tiltrotor aircraft, and other advanced rotary-wing aircraft. We work with the U.S. rotorcraft industry, Department of Defense, and other Government agencies to improve rotorcraft and make them less expensive.

    Improving Handling Characteristics

    The flight control system is what translates the pilot's steering into motion of the helicopter. NASA & Army experts design flight control systems which make helicopters and other rotorcraft easier to fly using a full-motion simulator and actual aircraft.

    Making the Cockpit Easier to Use

    Similar to a car, cockpits contain the equivalent of steering wheels (cyclic & collective) and dashboards (gages & displays). The design of the cockpit can make a helicopter easy or difficult to control. Rotorcraft cockpit design is one area of research at Ames.

    Reducing Noise

    Sound is made by pressure waves moving through air or other materials. Most rotorcraft noise results from vibrating parts and the interaction of air vortices shed from the tips of the rotors. Researchers use wind tunnels to investigate ways to reduce noise.

    Increasing Speed & Improving Performance

    The airflow around a helicopter's fuselage and moving rotor blades is very complex. These complexities limit the helicopter's speed in moving in different directions. Ames researchers use wind tunnels and computers to investigate ways to improve the airflow.

    Big Stuff We Use to Do Research

    Vertical Motion Simulator - a large video-game type cab that can move in any direction that we use to represent an aircraft in order to find out about potential problems
    Wind tunnel - a tube through which air is blown to investigate airflow around an object - such as a helicopter or rotor blade

    drawing that shows what directions a helicopter  can fly
    Rotorcraft can fly backwards, sideways, straight up, straight down and rotate or spin
    What Makes a Rotorcraft Special?

    Rotorcraft can hover - this means they can stay in one spot in mid-air. They can also fly backwards, sideways, straight up, straight down and rotate or spin. These abilities allow them to take off and land anywhere - they don't need a runway like regular airplanes do. They also have a safety device built in - if the engine fails, the rotor blades keep moving and enable the pilot to steer down to the ground for a soft landing instead of a crash landing. This type of landing, with the power off, is called an autorotation.

    How Do You Fly a Helicopter?

    How a helicopter moves depends on the forces created by the moving rotor blades. Changing the pitch or angle of all the blades at once will make the helicopter move up or down. This is done with the "collective" stick on the pilot's left. The "cyclic" stick between the pilot's legs changes the pitch or angle on the blades as they rotate, so not all the blades are at the same angle, causing the helicopter to roll right or left or tilt forward or back. The foot pedals change the pitch on the tail rotor which causes the helicopter to rotate or turn sideways.

    Helicopter Tidbits

    Circle T for True or F for False

    T F 1) NASA has just started to work on helicopter research.
    T F 2) NASA and the Army work together to figure out ways to make helicopters fly better.
    T F 3) Helicopters can fly backwards, and sideways.
    T F 4) Helicopters can only land on long runways at airports.
    T F 5) Helicopters are frequently used to save lives.
    T F 6) Helicopters have no way to land if an engine fails.
    T F

    7) Researchers use windtunnels, simulators, computers
    and even helicopters to investigate ways to improve helicopters.

    T F 8) Helicopters have steering wheels.
    T F 9) The president has his own private helicopter.
    T F 10) Helicopters are absolutely wonderful!


    Answers to Helicopter Tidbits
    1) F 2) T 3) T 4) F 5) T 6) F 7) T 8) F 9) T 10) T


    For More Information
    http://www.vtol.org/helifact.html