Mars drone concept art

Nasa to explore surface of Mars with small helicopter

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Nasa plans to deliver a helicopter drone to Mars in 2020, where it will assist the Mars 2020 mission with exploring areas of the planet that the next rover cannot reach.

The unmanned vehicle will be launched with the Mars 2020 rover in July 2020 and spend seven months reaching and landing on Mars.

Once the rover has landed, it will place the drone on the ground and retreat. The drone’s lithium-ion batteries will be charged using an array of solar cells and it will be flown according to commands relayed from Earth, via the rover. Nasa scientists hope that the drone can begin its work by ascending to a modest height of 10ft and hovering for 30 seconds on its first flight, followed by 30 days of testing until the drone can be reliably flown for a few hundred metres.

The helicopter has been under development at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, since 2013. The Nasa engineers have succeeded in creating a very small drone: it weighs just 1.8kg and is only a little larger than a tennis ball. It is equipped with a heating mechanism to cope with extremely cold Martian nights. In order to remain airborne in Mars’ thin atmosphere, its twin blades will rotate at 3,000rpm (approximately 10 times faster than helicopters on Earth).

“The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery and exploration missions to Mars,” said Jim Bridenstine, the recently inaugurated Nasa administrator, in a statement.

If the miniature helicopter proves a success, it could pave the way for other drones to explore the surface of Mars, as well as other planets, moons and bodies in space. Airborne vehicles allow scientists to explore terrain which could be tricky or impossible for rovers to reach.

The Mars 2020 mission, run by Nasa’s California-based Mars Exploration Program, is intended to investigate Mars’ ancient environment and its geology using a Curiosity-inspired rover. The mission will be of interest to astrobiologists, potentially revealing information about its habitability and the possibility of past life on the Red Planet.

Last week, it was reported that the White House has quietly defunded Nasa’s carbon monitoring program: the latest action by an administration which intends to prioritise space exploration, even at the expense of Earth-facing Nasa missions.

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