NASA currently has two cars roaming Mars — the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. But the next one it will send there will carry a vehicle with a new approach for planetary exploration: a helicopter.
The space agency announced the decision on Friday to add a small helicopter — about four pounds with a fuselage the size of a softball and blades that span just over three and a half feet, tip to tip — to its Mars 2020 mission, which is to launch in July 2020 and arrive at Mars the following February.
“We’re very excited about this and the potential it has for opening up a whole new paradigm for how to explore Mars,” said David Lavery, the program executive for solar system exploration at NASA headquarters.
He likened it to Sojourner, NASA’s first Mars rover, which was about the size of a microwave oven and trundled around Mars in 1997. “That said, ‘Hey, mobile exploration on another planet is not only possible, but adds a lot of value to how you do things,’” Mr. Lavery said.
For its trip to Mars, the helicopter will be packed on the underside of the rover. After the rover lands, the helicopter will be placed on the ground. The rover will then drive 50 to 100 yards away — close enough to stay in radio contact, far enough to not be endangered by any mishaps.
The helicopter is to make five short flights over 30 days. The first will go up about 10 feet and hover for 30 seconds. Later flights will be more ambitious, up to 90 seconds, and cover a few hundred yards. The helicopter will carry two cameras, one looking down and one pointed ahead. Between flights, a solar panel will recharge its batteries.
Flying on the red planet is not easy. The thin air at the surface of Mars is the equivalent of being 100,000 feet above Earth — well beyond the limits of terrestrial helicopters — although the weaker gravity helps. Two pairs of rotor blades will spin in opposite directions at nearly 50 revolutions per second. A prototype has been tested in a chamber that mimics the Martian atmosphere at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“We’ve been able to develop it to the point that we’re able to make the case that we can actually test at Mars in the Martian environment,” Mr. Lavery said.
The $55 million project is not part of the main Mars 2020 mission, which is to look for signs of past ancient life in the rocks of Mars.
“It’ll be interesting to see what it is actually capable of doing,” Kenneth Farley, the mission’s project scientist, said of the helicopter.
After the 30 days of testing are over, the helicopter will be left behind, and the rover will move on.
On future missions, a helicopter could act as a scout to help a rover navigate or even bring samples.
The Mars copter is not the only such proposal NASA has considered.
A candidate in NASA’s New Frontiers competition would send a robotic drone to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The quadcopter would be able to perform detailed explorations of the moon’s various terrains, including its seas of hydrocarbons. If NASA selects the mission over another finalist next year, it could possibly launch as soon as 2025.
Read earlier reporting on missions to study the solar system