NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars to study Martian soil

(NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/YouTube)
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NASA is wrapping up testing on a helicopter that they'll use on Mars next year.

Building a helicopter for Mars takes a lot of engineering because Mars has very little air. Considering air is how helicopters get some lift to fly, you can imagine the challenges the scientists faced. Watch the video above for more.

We wouldn't be able to live outside on Mars because it has 99% less air than Earth.

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If we were to live there, we'd have to grow plants in greenhouses. This is because the environment on Mars is like a desert in that it gets much colder at night. It's unlike a desert because it's pretty chilly during the day. Check out the current temperature on Mars here.

Both the ground and air on Mars do a poor job of retaining heat. So, a greenhouse would capture enough heat from the sun to grow plants.

Villanova University in the Philadelphia area has been researching which plants grow the best in Martian soil. They've found that salad greens grow best and most quickly.

Soil
This is what Martian soil would look like. This simulated soil comes from the Mojave Desert. (Drew Anderson)

Dr. Edward Guinan, the professor leading the research, recommends growing a weed on Mars.

"That's because you can eat all parts of a Dandelion,"he says. "You can make tea from its salad and eat its greens."

Learn more about the research here.

To simulate the Martian soil, Villanova University brings in dirt from California's Mojave Desert. Dirt in the Mojave Desert is unlike the dirt in Central Ohio. Basically, it's just crushed red rock, and that's exactly what you'd find on Mars. You can see what Mars soil would look like here.

To grow plants in that rocky dust, some organic material has to be added. The movie The Martian had it right when Matt Damon added his waste to the Martian soil. At Villanova University, students use something more sanitary: dirt made from worm waste.

The windows of the Villanova University greenhouse are intentionally left dirty to block out some sunlight. They do this because there's about 40% less sunlight on Mars. Mars gets less sun because it's farther from the sun.

NASA Is also doing research on Martian soil, and they plans on launching a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. The Mars Space Shuttle will launch from the same launch bad used by the Challenger Space Shuttle.

When astronauts step foot on Mars, they'll walk much differently than here on Earth. Mars gravity is 60% less than Earth, meaning there's less holding you down. It's the same case on the moon. You've seen astronauts move through big leaps and glides there. Well, the leaps and glides will be even bigger and take astronauts much farther because Mars has less gravity than the moon.

As for the helicopter designed for Mars, it will fly above Martian soil in 2021. Learn more about the dronelike helicopter here.