NASA testing helicopter drone to accompany next Mars rover
NASA is still in the process of planning the 2020 Mars rover mission to follow up on the massive success of the Curiosity rover. While the design of the 2020 mission will be very similar to Curiosity, NASA is looking to improve the suite of instruments and it might even give the rover a little aerial companion in the form of a helicopter. Engineers at NASA JPL are still testing the Mars copter design to see if it will head to the Red Planet with the rover.
Flying lets you cover much more ground, but rovers have been our only way of getting around on Mars thus far. That’s partially because of the possibility of damage to a flying drone that you can’t repair or even flip over from millions of miles away. The main reason this hasn’t been attempted yet is that Mars has a very thin atmosphere. That’s the same reason Curiosity needed a crazy rocket sled to land — there’s not enough atmosphere for parachutes to do the job. A fixed-wing craft would be more power efficient, but it would have to be huge to get enough lift to fly. A helicopter, on the other hand, can have smaller propellers that it spins faster to generate sufficient lift.
The helicopter design isn’t a magic bullet, though. The Mars copter design being tested does still have very large rotor blades relative to its size. The heart of the robot is a 2.2 pound cube roughly the size of a tissue box. The blades are 3.6 feet from tip to tip. The solar powered robot is designed to fly for two or three minutes at a time and cover about a third of a mile (half a kilometer). It will be outfitted with wide-angle cameras like a GoPro, allowing NASA to find optimal routes for the rover to take across the Martian landscape. This could allow the rover to cover three times more territory each day and scope out the best places to do science.
Simply engineering a solar-powered helicopter is already challenging, but NASA also needs to design an automated system that can land the copter reliably. Due to the distance, there’s no way for the drone to be controlled by humans. It needs to be able to find a landing zone and set down without damaging itself.
There’s no guarantee this will work. The design needs to pass plenty of tests before it will be added to the mission. If it does, I bet it’ll have an awesome Twitter account, and the rover will have its own official photographer. It won’t be restricted to lonely selfies.