Helicopter drone may serve as scout for Mars 2020 rover

As part of an effort to ensure that the Mars 2020 rover does not share the same fate as one of its predecessors, NASA officials are reportedly planning to send a helicopter-like drone along with the next-gen vehicle to act as a guide during its journey and help it avoid hazards.

According to Popular Science, the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) facility in Pasadena, California is currently designing the drone and plans to have it perform reconnaissance for the rover, guiding it to locations of interest and keeping it out of potholes and sand traps.

Not only could this potentially triple the distance the rover could travel in a single day, it would keep it from getting stuck in a hazard, which is what happened to the Spirit rover in April 2009. Unable to gain enough traction to free itself, that rover effectively suffered a premature death.

Outgoing JPL chief Charles Elachi recently told Space News that the helicopter drone was not approved for the mission as of yet, but that researchers were working on technology that would “enable us to actually have a drone which will fly around the rover, survey the area in front of it and enable the rover to basically drive more efficiently.”

Solar-powered copter drone could fly three minutes per day

The drone, Elachi said following a luncheon speech on Capitol Hill, would survey the land and send data to the rover, which would then be able to navigate better as it collected rocks and dirt samples that would be stored for future missions to collect and return to Earth for analysis.

JPL first showed off its Mars helicopter drone in January, but had not previously linked it to the upcoming Mars 2020 project – or any other mission, for that matter. Space News reported that it would be a solar-powered UAV that could fly for up to three minutes each day, and the Pasadena lab is moving forward with proof-of-concept tests involving the drone.

The plan is to have a full-scale, one kilogram helicopter completed by March 2016, Elachi told the website. That drone will then be placed into a chamber and exposed to an exact replica of the Marian atmosphere. “We’ve done some tests,” he said, “and we’re confident it will [fly].”

Due to the thin atmosphere surrounding the Red Planet, however, that is not a given, as Popular Science noted. The drone will likely have to work much harder in order to remain airborne, and only time will tell if it is capable of such a feat. Elachi did state, however, that a full-scale Mars helicopter was successfully flown in a Mars atmosphere chamber earlier this year.

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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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