IIT alumnus Bob Balaram creates chopper that will fly over Mars

An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology Bob Balaram has created a space chopper that will fly over the Martian skies.

The Mars Helicopter created by him will ride to Mars this summer with NASA's Perseverance rover. It is currently at Kennedy Space Center waiting to hitch a ride to the Red Planet this summer.

In the 1990s, Balaram, a robotics technologist with 35 years of experience attended a professional conference, where Stanford professor Ilan Kroo spoke about a "mesicopter," a miniature airborne vehicle for Earth applications that was funded as a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts proposal.

This led Balaram to think about using one on Mars. He suggested a joint proposal with Stanford for a NASA Research Announcement submission and recruited AeroVironment, a small company in Simi Valley, California.

The proposal got favourable reviews, and although it was not selected for funding at that time, it did yield a blade-rotor test under Mars conditions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of NASA. Other than that, the idea "sat on a shelf" for 15 years.

Charles Elachi, then director of JPL, attended a conference where the University of Pennsylvania presented about the use of drones and helicopters. When he returned to JPL, he asked whether something like this could be used on Mars.

A colleague of Balaram's mentioned his previous work in that area of research. Balaram dusted off that proposal, and Elachi asked him to write a new one for the competitive call for Mars 2020 investigation payloads. This sped up the process of developing a concept.

Although the helicopter idea was not selected as an instrument, it was funded for technology development and risk reduction.

Mimi Aung became Mars Helicopter project manager, and after the team worked on risk reduction, NASA decided to fund the helicopter for flight as a technology demonstration.

Balaram described the construction of the chopper as a perfectly blank canvas, but with restrictions. According to him, his physics background helped him envision flying on Mars, a planet with an atmosphere that is only 1 percent as dense as Earth's.

He compared it to flying on Earth at a 100,000-foot (30,500-meter) altitude -- about seven times higher than a typical terrestrial helicopter can fly. Another challenge was that the copter could carry only a few kilograms, including the weight of batteries and a radio for communications.

"You can't just throw mass at it, because it needed to fly," said Balaram.

It dawned on Balaram that it was like building a new kind of aircraft that just happens to be a spacecraft. And because it is a "passenger" on a flagship mission, he said, "we have to guarantee 100% that it will be safe."

The end result was a four-pound (1.8-kilogram) 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 (1.2 meters) in diameter.

Once it was built, Balaram said, the question was, "How do you test this beast? There's no book saying how."

Because 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.

About two-and-a-half months after landing at Jezero Crater, the Mars Helicopter team will have a window of about 30 days to perform a technology demonstration in the actual environment of the planet, starting with a series of vehicle checkouts, followed by attempts of first-ever flights in the very thin Martian atmosphere.

Despite best efforts and the best tests available on Earth, this is a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration. According to Balaram, he could also fail.

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.

This potential breakthrough could help pave the way for future craft that would expand NASA's portfolio of vehicles to explore other worlds.

Helicopter concept was funded, planned, developed and built and is heading to the Red Planet this summer.

"Bob is the inventor of our Mars Helicopter. He innovated the design and followed up on that vision to its fruition as chief engineer through all phases of design, development and test," said project manager Aung.

"Whenever we encountered a technical roadblock -- and we encountered many roadblocks -- we always turned to Bob, who always carries an inexhaustible set of potential solutions to be considered. Come to think of it, I don't think I have ever seen Bob feeling stuck at any point!" Aug added.

The main purpose of the Mars 2020 mission is to deliver the Perseverance rover, which will not only continue to explore the past habitability of the planet, but will actually search for signs of ancient microbial life.

It will also cache rock and soil samples for pickup by a potential future mission and help pave the way for future human exploration of Mars. Even if the helicopter encounters difficulties, the science-gathering mission of the Perseverance rover won't be affected.

Balaram said that in addition to the usual "seven minutes of terror" experienced by the team on Earth during a Mars landing, once the helicopter is on Mars and attempting to fly, "This is the seven seconds of terror every time we take off or land."

"There's been a crisis every single week of the last six years. I'm used to it," Balaram said.

Balaram sheds any stress that may crop up through backpacking, hiking and massage. His career has encompassed robotic arms, early Mars rovers, technology for a notional balloon mission to explore Venus and a stint as lead for the Mars Science Laboratory entry, descent and landing simulation software.

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