Why NASA Is Sending a Helicopter on Its 2020 Mars Rover Mission

NASA's Langley Research Center has developed a Mars drone concept that may be included as part of the upcoming Mars 2020 rover. . (Photo: NASA Langley Research Center)

The next mission to Mars may give us an unprecedented bird's-eye view of the red planet. NASA announced it's sending a helicopter "to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the red planet."

"NASA has a proud history of firsts," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars."

Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) spent years developing a specialized drone that may serve as an aerial scout for the upcoming Mars 2020 rover. Called the "Mars Flyer Concept," the autonomous aircraft has already undergone successful flights here on Earth in conditions that mimic Mars' atmospheric pressure and gravity.

"The system has been built, it’s been ground tested, and then we put it into a chamber that was backfilled at Mars atmosphere (conditions)," Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program, said in a presentation last month. "Some parts were removed from the helicopter to compensate for the 1g (gravity) field to get the proper relationship of mass and acceleration at Mars, and we did controlled takeoffs, slewing, translations, hovers and controlled landings in the chamber. We’ve done that multiple times."

The Mars Flyer Concept in flight at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The Mars Flyer Concept in flight at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Photo: NASA JPL)

It's all about the tools

The Mars Flyer would offer a nice complement to the slate of instruments approved for the Mars 2020 rover. In addition to advanced mapping services, the 4-pound drone would also offer quick opportunities to explore the surrounding terrain. While the Mars 2020 rovers tops out at 500 feet per hour, the Mars Flyer could cover about 1,000 feet over a single two minute flight.

"If our rover was equipped with its very own helicopter that could see over tall objects in front of it, it would allow us to make decisions much more efficiently on which way to command the rover," Mike Meacham, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), explained in a video.

As shown in the video below, the Flyer has the ability to perform vertical takeoffs and then shift into a horizontal position for efficient flights over long distances. Two cameras would be included, one for surveying, landing, and imaging (with resolutions 10x higher than current orbital cameras above the red planet) and the other for tracking the position of the sun for accurate navigation. The later is particularly important as Mars' inconsistent magnetic field does not lend itself to utilizing a compass.

The Flyer will also be equipped with solar cells to recharge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating device to keep it at night. Once the rover lands on Mars, it will locate a suitable area to drop the Flyer and drive away. From there, the batteries will charge and the Flyer will be controlled from Earth.

"We don’t have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time," said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. "Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own."

You can see a behind-the-scenes, 360-degree video (drag your mouse to look around) of the Rover's construction at JPL’s High Bay 1 below.