NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is considering an ambitious plan to extend the range of the next Mars rovers, advancing the idea of deploying helicopter drones to explore the surface of the red planet.
Due to differences in the Martian atmosphere, the helicopters would be small in size, according to CNET. The atmosphere of Mars is much thinner, meaning any helicopter drone that would be deployed by NASA would need to be markedly lighter than if it was designed to fly on Earth. Such a vehicle could also be modified to carry larger rotor blades, which would also spin faster, carrying it aloft over Mars.
The advantages presented by a helicopter scout in addition to a traditional rover are significant, as the Verge points out. A helicopter could potentially triple the distance covered by a Mars rover in a typical day, examining the surface and singling out features worthy of further study. While NASA currently has a high definition imager, the HiRise camera, in polar orbit around Mars, as the Inquisitr has previously reported, helicopter drones could prove capable of revealing even smaller details of the terrain.
— Coconut Science Lab (@CoconutScience) January 23, 2015
A proof-of-concept prototype of the helicopter, with a body about the size of a tissue box, is currently undergoing testing. The drones are being proposed as an add-on for future rover missions rather than a discrete initiative of their own, and as such, they won’t be headed to Mars anytime soon.
If the drones are eventually deployed, they could end up weighing a scant two pounds, with a wingspan of just three and a half feet. The range of the helicopters would also be extremely limited. Powered by a solar panel, each drone would be capable of flying for just three minutes per day, carrying the helicopter only a third of a mile from the rover that would serve as its base of operations. Due to these power and distance constraints, the helicopters would play more of a reconnaissance role, helping to divine areas of major study for the next generation of rovers.
— Alan Boyle (@b0yle) January 23, 2015
The prototype drone is currently undergoing testing in a vacuum chamber meant to simulate the atmosphere of Mars, revealing to researchers how the helicopter will perform if and when it makes its way to the red planet.
[Image: NASA via CNET]