The scientists working on NASA’s Mars helicopter project are done building the actual 4-pound vehicle that’s blasting off to the red planet with the Mars 2020 rover.
But they can’t just strap the helicopter to its bigger companion’s belly and call it a day — they first have to prove that it can actually fly in Martian conditions. That’s why in late January, the team replicated our neighboring planet’s much thinner atmosphere in JPL’s Space Simulator in order to make sure the helicopter will be able to take off. Spoiler alert: they were able to successfully conduct two test flights in Martian conditions on separate days.
Since the Martian atmosphere only has about one percent the density of Earth’s, the researchers would’ve had to conduct their flight tests at an altitude of 100,000 feet if they did’t rely on the simulator. The 25-foot-wide vacuum cylinder was the much better choice, especially since the agency has been using it to test machines meant for the red planet anyway. In fact, it’s where the Curiosity team tested the rover here on Earth.