The space agency announced the decision on Friday to add a small helicopter - about 1.8 kilos with a fuselage the size of a softball and blades that span just over a metre, tip to tip - to its Mars 2020 mission, which is to launch in July 2020 and arrive at Mars the following February.
"A remote-controlled helicopter to Mars Helicopter, created to fly in the rarefied atmosphere of the red planet, weighs 1.8 kg and the size of a small ball".
"The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., said in a statement released by the agency.
The Mars Helicopter's development began in 2013 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.
The "Mars Helicopter" weighs less than 1.8kg and its blades rotate more than 10 times as fast as those on Earth. The helicopter will have solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it warm during frigid nights.
"The elevation record for a helicopter flying on the planet is about 40,000 feet (12,200 meters)". It is specifically created to fly in the atmosphere of Mars, which is 100 times thinner than Earth's.
The design is compact enough to fit in the belly of the Mars 2020 rover for the journey to the Red Planet.
After placing the helicopter on the ground, the rover will be directed to drive to a safe distance to relay commands.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is set to send a helicopter to Mars in a landmark test flight of the first "heavier than air" aircraft on another planet.
Up to five flights are planned over the 30-day test campaign, starting with a flight where the helicopter will ascent to an altitude of three meters and hover for 30 seconds. "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".
Both projects are considered "high-risk, high-reward" technology demonstrations, meaning that neither of the two missions will be impacted if the CubeSats and the "marscopter" fail. Indeed, future Mars settlements could be constructed within the caverns, protected from the harsh conditions of the Martian surface. The launch will take place at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The six-wheeled rover will hunt for signs of habitable environments as well as sites that may have once hosted microbial life, examining the Red Planet with 23 cameras, a microphone and a drill to collect samples.