(Photo: NASA’s Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotor craft, will travel with the agency’s Mars 2020 rover, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. – Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
NASA has figured out how to helicopters can be made to fly even in the low pressure of Mars and demonstrated it in simulated conditions in the large 25ft vacuum chambers at JPL on Earth.
The Mars Scout Helicopter will be a tech demonstration and will fly only for a 2 to 3 minutes, once a sol (a martian day), with a range of 600 meters, before needing to recharge its on board batteries. Because it can fly nominally at 40 meters above the surface (and reaches up to 100 m), it can look beyond the next hill.
To do this it uses two 1.1 m diameter counter rotating rotor blades and a power supply delivering about 220 Watt. The body of the helicopter itself, comprising all sensors and subsystems, comes in a small package of 14cm*14cm*14cm. The size of this first demonstrator is limited by the fact that it has to fit on board the 2020 MSL rover, which will drop it off after landing, and has to fold up in as small a box as possible. It has a communication package allowing it to exchange data with the MSL Rover.
Even with this limited size and capability, the camera’s on board the helicopter will help mission planners in looking ahead of the rover and help them plan the next couple of hundreds of meters to drive.
The 3D maps that can be generated from the acquired data provide much higher levels of safety and allow to locate areas of interest with much greater ease than a camera on a large pole mounted to the rover could do.
In one scenario the helicopter scout could explore the ideal route to navigate a slope instead of the rover getting stuck somewhere half way down a cliff.
If the helicopter proves to be successful on Mars, there would be no hurdle to grow the device and fly and hover 50 kg sensor packages or payloads and even more on next iterations.
From a video posted below, answering her own question of how big these helicopters on Mars can get, we can quote developer Mimi Aung saying (min. 33) that “the first analysis shows easily up to 500 kg class of spacecraft [helicopters are doable]” with a “50 km range”. This implies crewed helicopters, using the NASA blades and motors designed for Mars, are feasible (there are many lighter helicopter types available and being developed on Earth, e.g. the 290kg (empty weight, 450lg gross) electric Volocopter 2X).
As such it can quickly grow into useful devices that run errands, e.g. deliver a spare drill bit, other tool and can even be used for emergency response to stranded astronauts, e.g. delivering an extra oxygen canister, a spare drill bit, radio, etc…
Fleets of small helicopters could conceivably give a planet wide tele-presence, controlled from orbit (e.g. a Phobos outpost), from the ground or operating autonomously. Drone fleets are already a reality on Earth, so it will be a viable application on Mars as well.
They can also play a role as a sterile autonomous package to venture into sensitive areas with a high potential to discover Martian life without risk of forward contaminating the zone with terrestrial biology.
Essential information on the project can be found below in a presentation delivered by Mimi Aung, the Autonomous Systems Deputy Division Manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the Keck Institute for Space Studies on April 1, 2015.
Remark: in the video from 2015 we see the helicopter listed on slides with a mass of 1 kg. The increased power margin has allowed it to grow to about 1.8 kg according to the latest 2018 press release.
- Press release:
- NASA, May 11, 2018, RELEASE 18-035, Mars Helicopter to Fly on NASA’s Next Red Planet Rover Mission, https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/mars-helicopter-to-fly-on-nasa-s-next-red-planet-rover-mission
- More information on the NASA MARS Mission: