Helicopters May Be Coming to a Planet Near You

The first space missions humans sent to Mars were flybys. Spacecraft had once chance to observe the planet before hurtling away, never to return. Then came the orbiters, designed to be captured by Mars’s gravity and stick around. Eventually, the orbiters started bringing landers with them, dropping them on the rust-colored surface. Then came the rovers, built to move along the rocky terrain. Over decades, these artifacts—some still running, others defunct and coated in dust—have created a kind of museum exhibit on Mars, a timeline of human technology as it matures.

In a few years, NASA hopes to add a new kind of machine to the display.

The space agency announced on Friday it would include a small, autonomous helicopter on its next mission to Mars, which will launch a rover in July 2020 to study the surface for signs of ancient life. The four-pound helicopter, about the size of a softball without its two blades, will be equipped with two cameras. It will receive commands from Earth about where to go and then fly on its own. The Mars helicopter is a 30-day technology demonstration, which means its only job is to work. If the demonstration goes well, it would be a game-changer for future exploration of planets and moons in the solar system.

Unlike rovers, aerial probes can cover more ground. At top speed, Mars rovers like Curiosity and Opportunity can only reach one mile per hour. Rovers aren’t build to traverse over difficult terrain, and their wheels are prone to damage from sharp rocks. Autonomous, drone-like spacecraft could hop from one spot to another, providing humans with an unprecedented degree of mobility on another planet.

It would also provide them with a better view. The cameras on rovers can produce some very high-resolution photos, but they can only see so far. Aerial spacecraft can scout exploration targets and then gently swoop down to get a closer look.

The concept of a “marscopter” is not new; NASA has been thinking about the possibility of autonomous aircraft on Mars since the beginnings of space exploration. NASA and others have worked on such technology on Earth just as long. But only in the last decade or so has the technology of autonomous aircraft seemed to mature, such that now drones seem like they’re everywhere—they deliver packages, film movies, crash into the White House lawn.

Source:: The Atlantic – Science

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