China is developing its own helicopter on Mars

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HELSINKI – China is looking for ways to expand its space exploration capabilities, including a similar-looking vehicle to NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter.

A prototype “Mars surface cruise drone” passed a final acceptance exam on August 20, the National Space Science Center (NSSC) under the aegis of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) announcement Wednesday.

The rotorcraft was one of three projects in a technology culture program promoted by the NSSC. The vehicle project was led by Bian Chunjiang of NSSC and includes a micro-spectrometer.

The concept could be considered for future Chinese exploration of Mars, but the NSSC has not identified a mission the drone could fly on.

China’s first mission to Mars, Tianwen-1, entered orbit around the Red Planet in February. This feat was followed by a successful landing of the solar-powered Zhurong rover of about 240 kilograms in May. China’s next Mars mission is currently listed as an example of a return mission, launching in launch windows 2028 or 2030.

The prototype Mars surface cruising drone developed by the Chinese NSSC. Credit: NSSC / CAS

The Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) presented a study in June on the propulsion needed for the future, long-term crewed expeditions to Mars, including precursor robotic missions. The study identified favorable launch windows, but did not provide any timeline for manned or unmanned missions.

The concept of piloting a craft on Mars has recently been verified by NASA. The Perseverance rover landed on Mars in February, taking the Ingenuity 1.8-kilogram helicopter with it. The vehicle made the first powered flight by a plane to another world in April and carried out its 12th and the most recent flight on August 16, covering a horizontal distance of 450 meters in 169.5 seconds of flight.

NASA is now concept review for larger and more efficient rotorcraft for future missions. The agency will launch in 2027 the Dragonfly drone to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, arrival in 2034. Dragonfly has been selected as the New Frontiers planetary science mission.

China’s pursuit of piloting an aircraft in the thin Martian atmosphere is nothing new. A concept for the Qian Xuesen space technology laboratory has been considered for the country’s March 2020 mission. In addition to a rover, the ambitious proposal included three ground penetrators, to be released during the descent, and an aerostat that would operate at an altitude of between 1 and 5 kilometers for a week. The objective would have been to obtain “three-dimensional, multi-layered and multi-source information” in a single landing.

Entities such as the Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering and the Shenzhen Aerospace DFH HIT Satellite Ltd., both under the Chinese Academy of Space Technologies (CAST), and the University of Beihang have embarked on work on conceptual architectures for the exploration of Mars.

The former is a winged drone, a design chosen over a helicopter due to the challenges of high rotational speed and the demands of an ultralight structure and high efficiency power system posed by the latter. The drone would take off vertically from the surface of Mars before pitching and spreading its wings. The vehicle would have a range of several tens of kilometers, collecting and potentially analyzing atmospheric and surface samples. It would also be able to enter otherwise prohibitive environments such as canyons and craters.

The group also came up with a balloon concept, carrying a captive 2U CubeSat. The system would seek to take atmospheric samples at different altitudes for analysis, while returning high-resolution images and other data.

The Chinese Tianwen-1 mission brought surprises in the form of an ejected space camera and a camera deployed by a rover to allow a joint photo of the rover’s landing pad. With innovative and newly proven concepts already under development, competition for a place on board future Chinese exploration missions is likely to be strong.


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