NASA plans to launch a tiny four-pound autonomous helicopter along with the Mars 2020 mission rover.
The United States Space Agency, NASA, has revealed plans to send a tiny four-pound autonomous helicopter to Mars. The experimental drone, about the size of a softball, would be the first aerial vehicle to fly over the planet's atmosphere, if you don't consider the modules or landers See in the animation released by the Agency how the vehicle's flight over the Red Planet could be - the mission's rover can be seen in the background.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
The purpose of including an autonomous flying vehicle with Mars 2020 is to study the feasibility and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. To design a flying vehicle that would actually work on another planet, NASA scientists will face a number of challenges. For example: Mars' particularly weak atmosphere and the communication delay between the control ofsoil here on Earth and the rover.
Travelling at the speed of light, it will still take several minutes for any commands sent from Earth to reach the helicopter, so the flying rover will have to be at least partially autonomous as it is expected to provide scientists - and other autonomous vehicles on the surface of Mars - with a panoramic view of the planet capable of aiding navigations under the ground.
Another obstacle to be faced by engineers, 'programmers and scientists is the Martian atmosphere, which is practically non-existent. The air pressure on the planet's surface is lower than the maximum altitude of a helicopter when flying on Earth. To take off, the tiny flying robot needs to rotate its two blades ten times faster than on Earth: about 3,000 times per minute. Andthis by charging batteries and other scientific equipment made to be as light as possible.
When the rover reaches Mars in February 2021 (it is scheduled to launch in July 2020), it will conduct reconnaissance missions to search for ideal landing zones on the surface. It will also investigate the planet for signs of life and potential surface features that could pose risks to future astronauts venturing to Mars. The tinydrone will also assist in geological research currently underway by land-based rovers.
NASA is making a big bet on this little drone-helicopter to function properly. Once it's out there, it will attempt a few test flights. The first one will last only thirty seconds, and then the vehicle will have scaled up its missions.
But if this effort really "takes off " it could add a valuable and revealing new dimension to space exploration missions in the future. On Mars and other worlds.