NASA announced this afternoon that it plans to launch a tiny, four-pound, autonomous helicopter along with its 2020 rover mission. And if you think this sounds relatively cool, well: You’re right.
The experimental, softball-sized drone would be the first airborne vehicle to fly around within Mars’ atmosphere other than the landers that have delivered other, ground-based rovers. (At least the first vehicle that we know of.)
In order to design a flying vehicle that would actually work on another planet, NASA scientists faced a number of challenges. For example: the red planet’s particularly-weak atmosphere and the communication delay between ground control here on Earth and the rover.
When the rover arrives at Mars in February 2021, it’ll perform scouting missions to look for ideal landing zones on the surface, as well as scan the planet for signs of life, hazards that might matter to the future astronauts who finally venture to Mars. It’ll also assist with the ongoing geology research currently underway by ground-based rovers (i.e. Curiosity and Opportunity).
NASA’s taking a big gamble on this helicopter running smoothly. Once it’s out there, it’s gonna attempt a couple test flights, the first of which will last just thirty seconds, before ramping up the scale of its missions. But if this endeavor truly takes off (sorry) it could add a valuable and revealing new dimension to space exploration missions down the road.