An Indian Institute of Technology alumnus, Mr. Bob Balaram has invented a space chopper for Martian skies. The Mars chopper will ride to Mars this summer using NASA’s Perseverance rover. It is currently at Kennedy Space Center waiting for its takeoff for the red planet this summer.
Who is Mr. Bob Balaram?
Mr. Balaram is a robotics technologist with 35 years of experience. In 1990 he attended a professional conference, where Stanford professor Ilan Kroo spoke about a “mesicopter“. It is a miniature airborne vehicle made for applications on Earth. But it was funded as a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts proposal. This made Mr. Balaram think of a similar vehicle for Mars. He suggested a joint proposal with Stanford for a NASA Research Announcement submission. But also recruited a small company in Simi Valley, AeroVironment, California.
The proposal received favorable reviews, and although it was not selected for funding at that time. But it did still yield a blade-rotor test under Mars conditions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of NASA. Other than that, the idea stood at a standstill for 15 years.
Charles Elachi is the director of JPL. He attended a conference where the University of Pennsylvania presented a paper on the use of UAV. On returning, he asked whether something like this could be used on Mars.
Mr. Balaram’s colleague mentions his previous work in that area of research. Mr. Balaram dusted off that proposal, and Elachi asked him to write a new one for the competitive call. Because it was for Mars 2020 investigation payloads. This sped up the process of developing a new concept note.
I'm determined that if I keep calling it the "Mars Chopper" that will become its unofficial name https://t.co/rr2GwbS58E
— Ian J. O'Neill (@astroengine) March 19, 2020
The helicopter idea did not become an instrument. But, It was funded for technology development and risk reduction.
Mimi Aung is Mars Helicopter project manager, and after the team worked on risk reduction. NASA decided to fund the helicopter for flight as a technology demonstration.
Mars Chopper: Why it is made?
Mr. Balaram describes the construction of the chopper as an artist canvass, but with restrictions. According to him, his physics background helps him envision flying on Mars, which is a planet with an atmosphere that is only 1% as dense as Earth’s.
He compared it to flying on Earth at a 30,500-meter altitude which is about seven times higher than a typical land helicopter can fly. Another challenge was that the copter could carry only a few kilograms, including the weight of batteries and radio for communications.
Mr. Balaram is the inventor of Mars Chopper. He innovated the design and followed up on his vision till completion as a chief engineer through all phases of design, development, and test, said project manager Aung.
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.
IIT ones again prove its brilliance in producing engineering pioneers in India. Many like Mr. Balaram will carry India forward.