TOKYO — As the search for life beyond Earth intensifies, Japan’s Tohoku University is working with NASA to test whether the US space agency’s next-generation Mars helicopter can fly through the Red Planet’s extremely thin atmosphere. Yes or No.
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter was landed on Mars in February 2021. That April, it became the first aircraft to fly a powered, controlled flight on a planet other than Earth. According to the university, a wind tunnel at Tohoku University will be used to test the blades of Ingenuity’s successor.
Mars’ atmosphere is less than 1% thinner than Earth’s, plus about a third of the gravity. This means that to fly an aircraft on Mars needs to produce about 33 times as much lift as an equivalent on Earth.
Tohoku University’s wind tunnel could create atmospheric conditions similar to Mars. The university will work with NASA to test whether the blades of a next-generation helicopter can produce enough lift when subjected to winds over one-hundredth of Earth’s standard air pressure.
This will be the first test of a NASA-developed object in the Tohoku University wind tunnel. The two sides signed a joint research agreement late last year and are working on designing the shape of the rotor in preparation for initial testing. The trial is expected to be fully running around the fall and running by the autumn of 2023.
The US has long led the exploration of Mars with the aim of searching for evidence of possible extraterrestrial life. The US now faces stiff competition from China, which successfully landed its rover on the planet in 2021.
Japan plans to launch its Martian Moons Exploration Mission in fiscal year 2024 to collect a sample from the Martian moon of Phobos and bring it back to Earth, leveraging the experience of the Hayabusa and Hayabusa-2 asteroid probes . Separately, researchers from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and elsewhere are working on a Martian plane of their own.