RYOSUKE MATSUZOE, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO — As the search for life beyond Earth heats up, Japan’s Tohoku University is working with NASA to test whether the American space agency’s next-generation Mars helicopter can take flight in the red planet’s extremely thin atmosphere.
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter was landed on Mars in February 2021. That April, it became the first aircraft to make a powered, controlled flight on a planet other than Earth. A wind tunnel at Tohoku University will be used to test the blades of Ingenuity’s successor, according to the university.
Mars has an atmosphere less than 1% as thin as Earth’s, as well as roughly a third of the gravity. This means that an aircraft on Mars needs to produce around 33 times as much lift as a counterpart on Earth in order to fly.
Tohoku University’s wind tunnel can create atmospheric conditions similar to Mars. The university will work with NASA to check whether the blades for the next-generation helicopter can produce enough lift when subjected to winds at a hundredth of Earth’s standard air pressure.
This will mark the first test of a NASA-developed item at the Tohoku University wind tunnel. The two sides signed a joint research agreement late last year and have been working on designing the rotor shape in preparation for initial testing. Trials are expected to get fully underway around fall and run until the autumn of 2023.
The U.S. has long led the way in Mars exploration aimed at searching for evidence of possible extraterrestrial life. America now faces intensifying competition from China, which successfully landed its own rover on the planet in 2021.
Japan plans to launch its Martian Moons Exploration mission in fiscal 2024 to collect a sample from the Martian moon of Phobos and bring it back to Earth, leveraging experience from the Hayabusa and Hayabusa-2 asteroid probes. Separately, researchers from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and elsewhere are working on their own Martian aircraft.