Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are testing a small prototype helicopter drone designed to help future rovers on Mars explore their surroundings. The soonest this could happen is 2020, when the next landing mission is scheduled. But time isn’t the problem. Although a helicopter drone on Mars is an exciting next step in planetary exploration, actually building one isn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, the unique atmospheric conditions and terrain on Mars present several obstacles NASA engineers are working to overcome.
The atmospheric density on Mars is less than a hundred times that of Earth’s. This means that keeping a drone in the air is a technical challenge all by itself. In order to accomplish this feat, the craft needs to be extremely light, and to create the necessary lift, JPL’s engineers will need to design a craft with bigger, faster moving blades capable of spinning at roughly 2400 rpm.
Currently, JPL is testing the drone in a vacuum chamber where they can replicate the various conditions it would experience on Mars.
Another issue is the Martian terrain, which is rough and often uneven. The drone is being designed to land and take off autonomously, therefore requiring sensors which will keep the drone safe and allow communication with the paired rover. Most importantly, it needs to overcome these obstacles with time to spare. The team at JPL expects they’ll only get about three minutes of flight time out of the solar-powered battery.
Why bother with a helicopter drone on Mars?
A helicopter drone on Mars would allow rovers to explore new locations, perhaps expanding our understanding of the planet’s terrain. Right now, we can’t travel anywhere we can’t see. Eyes in the sky would increase line of sight, letting researchers back at home pick out interesting new locations and make more efficient decisions. The drone’s high-resolution camera would also capture better images than any of NASA’s current Mars orbiters.
Based on the prototype, daily flights could travel as high as 100 meters and as far as a half kilometer.
Check out the concept plans for NASA’s future helicopter drone on Mars, and let us know what you think of the project: