Science! By Jan. 26, 2015 1:45 pm
NASA is working on a helicopter for future Mars missions | Science! |

Humanity has successfully delivered a few probes and rovers to Mars, making its surface quite the haven for robots. However, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is toying with the idea of taking to the skies on Mars with a remote-controlled helicopter. Such a mission would come with higher risks, but also correspondingly higher rewards.

Mars is far enough away (between 3 and 22 light minutes) that it’s impossible to control a probe in near-real time. Mission managers have to submit carefully crafted control routines all at once, then wait for a response back from the robot. When you’re talking about a rover racing around the surface, there are any number of things that can go wrong — an odd outcropping of rock, softer than expected terrain, and hidden chasms are all lurking out there.

The result is a very slow, tedious journey across Mars. In the two and a half years it has been on Mars, Curiosity has only managed to travel between five and six miles. The idea is that a rover could be sent along with a smaller helicopter companion with a camera that can see areas the rover can’t. A flying robot could give controllers a better view of obstacles and terrain so as to plan a route for the rover. The JPL estimates an airborne robot could allow a rover to cover three times as much distance on Mars.

While that all sounds good in theory, NASA will have a lot of engineering work to do before sending something to Mars that flies. Getting into the air with a propeller on the Red Planet will be tricky for the same reason landing Curiosity on Mars was so complicated. Mars has only 38% the gravity of Earth, so you might think it would be easy to get a helicopter airborne. However, Mars also has a very thin atmosphere of carbon dioxide, about 0.6% as dense as Earth’s. With so little air, it’s hard to produce lift with spinning blades, even for a small craft.

There are several factors that can be used to solve this, primarily by keeping the weight of the craft down, using larger blades, and spinning them really, really fast. NASA has been working with prototype Mars helicopters in a vacuum chamber to test them in a Mars-like atmosphere. It is designed to fly for 2-3 minutes every day, spinning the blades at 2400rpm. There’s a solar panel on the top to recharge after each flight.

NASA is working on a helicopter for future Mars missions | Science! |

Sending a rover to Mars that will rely on a helicopter to help it get around is a risk. There’s a lot more than can go wrong when a machine has to take off and land every day. If something goes wrong with the motor powering the blades, the helicopter could drop out of the sky and end up completely inoperable. Even if the more complicated machinery works as planned, a simple error in landing (which would be automated) could end the mission. Even with all the things that could go wrong, even more could go right if JPL gets this technology figured out.

Now read: Curiosity’s photos may show evidence of ancient life on Mars

NASA is working on a helicopter for future Mars missions | Science! |


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