If you forgot about NASA after all of the noise SpaceX has made over the past months, yes, they still do exist and yes, they still do cool stuff! In a rover that is set to depart for Mars in 2020, a small drone has been developed to help the robot on its mission on the red planet. This is the first time that a flying drone has been developed for use on another planet and just like all of the other stuff launched into space, yes it has solar panels.

What will this drone do?

The main focus of the rover is to look for organic compounds, produce oxygen from carbon dioxide, and collect rock samples that will be retrieved from the rover on a future mission. The small drone looks to help with all of these tasks as it acts as a small scout flying high up to map out obstacles. It will also give scientists a look not seen before of Mars from an elevated height. This can also act as a way to get a look at areas the rover simply can not get to.

The specs are nothing impressive, in fact, they prove to be underwhelming for what is supposed to be the first fully autonomous aircraft on another planet. The weight is 4 pounds (1.8kg) and has a flight time of anywhere between a minute and a half to 2 minutes using the internal battery. This time will give the helicopter looking drone a chance to reach heights of 1000 feet (300 meters) which should be enough to complete its assigned tasks.

The drone will be accompanied by two different cameras, one of which is used strictly for navigation. The other is a higher resolution camera that is able to produce color images to be sent back to Earth.

Development

AeroVironment Inc. is working alongside the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada-Flintridge to build the drone that could accompany the Mars 2020 rover. AeroVironment dumped a lot of their other ventures to commit their full effort to build unmanned aerial vehicles.

According to the San Fernando Valley Business Journal, AeroVironment has contributed a lot to JPL’s avionics, sensors, and software systems. They have built and developed high-efficiency, lightweight propulsion motors, power electronics, and landing gears, proving them to be a perfect suit to build the Mars drone.

Differences between flying a drone on Earth and Mars

The gravity and atmosphere are different on Mars than they are here on Earth which led to a few problems. Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program at the agency’s headquarters, said:

“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). 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.”

It seems like Watzin is very confident in the drone’s performance on Mars after tests that have been run multiple times. Small helicopter drone to accompany the Mars 2020 rover

Limited use

Even though a drone on Mars sounds like a great idea that could be beneficial to the mission, the team behind the Mars 2020 rover isn’t fully sold on the idea. According to Spaceflight Now, mission planners want to ensure the drone will not collide with the rover, thus damaging it, and that it will not kick up too much dust. In a statement, Watzin said:

“If we were to fly the helicopter as a tech demonstration on something like Mars 2020, we would envision a very small number of flights to prove the aerodynamic and handling characteristics, and the concept of operations, and that would be the end of the demonstration.”

Drone flight on Mars is as close as it has ever been, the final stages are in place and if those in charge of this mission think it can benefit the Mars 2020 rover, it will make the journey as well.

What do you think about this drone being developed for Mars? Let us know in the comments below.

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Photo credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory 

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