NASA may send a helicopter drone to Mars in 2020 to accompany a six-wheeled land vehicle being designed for the space agency’s next rover mission.
The drone, being developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., weighs 2.2 pounds and sports helicopter blades measuring 3.6 feet from tip to tip, according to Space.com.
JPL has released a video exploring the idea of using a drone on Mars, which you can see below.
“If our rover was equipped with its very own helicopter that could see over tall objects in front of it, it would allow us to make decisions much more efficiently on which way to command the rover,” JPL mechanical engineer Mike Meacham said in the video.
Challenges facing the design team include the difficulty of flying in the thin, almost nonexistent atmosphere of Mars, which would require a different copter design than the ones that fly with ease on Earth. The body of the Mars drone must be relatively lightweight compared to a bulkier blade system to achieve lift in an atmosphere that’s just 1 percent as dense as Earth’s.
The drone would probably only be capable of three-minute flights, according to Bob Balaram, chief engineer of mobility and robotics systems at JPL. It would climb to a maximum height of 330 feet and fly a few thousand feet over land each day.
“It has to be autonomous in terms of being able to fly and maintain stable flight,” Balaram said in the video. “And then, this system has to repeatedly take off and land on natural rocky terrain like you see out here. And then, the other one is that it has to survive the harsh environment of Mars.”
The proposed copter would include “counter-rotating propellers designed for use in the thin Martian air; batteries that are recharged by solar power; a high-resolution, downward-looking camera for navigation, landing and science surveying of the terrain; and a communications system to relay data to the rover,” Space.com reported.
The site noted that an insect-like “entomopter” flying device has also been proposed for a future Mars mission, while balloons are another aerial reconnaissance idea engineers are developing for exploring the Red Planet.