While the world is reeling with a global crises, an IIT Alumnus has created a helicopter that can fly over Mars. The ultimate Dream Escape, don’t you think? By Bayar Jain
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Bob Balaram, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology has created a space chopper that will fly over the Martian skies. If all goes well, this new chopper is set to ride to the planet along with NASA’s Perseverance rover this summer. Although the helicopter came to fruition only now, the inception of it was laid in the 1990s itself.
In the 1990s, Balaram attended a professional conference by Stanford professor Ilan Kroo. During this talk, Kroo spoke about a ‘mesicopter’ – a miniature airborne vehicle for Earth applications funded as a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts proposal. This got Balaram thinking, leading him to work towards a joint proposal with Stanford for a NASA Research Announcement submission. For this, he recruited AeroVironment, a small company in Simi Valley, California.
Although the proposal got favourable reviews at the time, it missed out in funding due to which the idea was shelved for 15 years. Charles Elachi, the then director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), attended a conference in the University of Pennsylvania where a presentation on the use of drones and helicopters was held. When Elachi returned to JPL, he asked whether something like this could be used on Mars. It was then that Balaram’s concept resurfaced, thanks to a colleague that mentioned his work. Balaram, however, dusted off that proposal while Elachi requested him to write a new one for the competitive call for Mars 2020 investigation payloads. This sped up the process of developing a concept.
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Although the helicopter idea was not selected as an instrument, it was funded for technology development and risk reduction. NASA decided to fund the helicopter for flight as a technology demonstration. With this, the construction of the chopper began.
Along the way, Balaram was presented with challenges. He realised that the copter could carry only a few kilograms, including the weight of batteries and radio for communications. The end result was a four-pound helicopter with two pairs of light counter-rotating blades — an upper and lower pair, to slice through the Martian atmosphere. Each pair of blades spans four feet in diameter. Once created, it was time to test the spacecraft on Earth before sending it out for the Mars mission. Utmost safety is required since the craft would take passengers to the extraterrestrial grounds.
Since there is no easily accessible place on Earth with a thin atmosphere like the one on Mars, they ran tests in a vacuum chamber and the 25-foot Space Simulation Chamber at JPL. Despite best efforts and the best tests available on Earth, this is a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration. However, if the chopper succeeds on Mars, it will be what Balaram describes as “kind of a Wright Brothers moment on another planet” — the first time a powered aircraft will have flown on Mars, or any planet besides Earth, for that matter. Probably the best Dream Escape we could think of, isn’t it?