Can a helicopter fly on Mars? NASA lays out its sci-fi plan

14 May 2018

Still from ‘NASA Mars Helicopter Technology Demonstration’. Image: Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory/YouTube

It seems like the obvious answer to explore Mars, but sending a helicopter out there is an incredible challenge.

If a child sees the Curiosity rover on Mars and hears how slow its progress is over the planet, they might be thinking a somewhat obvious question: why don’t we just send a helicopter there?

After all, to them, a helicopter is something that moves fast and low across the sky – so surely it would cover far more ground than a standard, wheeled rover?

Future Human

Reality is not that simple, though, as the Martian atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s atmosphere, posing enormous challenges for a helicopter.

However, according to Spaceflight Now, it seems that childhood idea might not be as unlikely as we once thought, as engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been working for the past four years to design a helicopter that could be a part of the next Martian rover mission in 2020.

Massive challenge

To get a sense of the challenge at hand, the helicopter needs to fly in atmospheric pressure that is just 1pc of what exists on Earth in a gravity field only three-eighths as strong.

The design for the craft shows it to be a lot smaller than what we’re used to, weighing in at less than 2kg. It includes an internal battery capable of powering flight for a maximum of two minutes.

This should give it enough time to reach a height of around 300 metres, and it can carry on performing similar flights regularly thanks to its battery being rechargeable through solar energy.

Human pilots?

Even with no human pilot, the helicopter drone will be largely autonomous, with little input from scientists on Earth. It could, however, plot a path ahead of a ground-based rover such as Curiosity to make sure the terrain is safe.

As for how feasible it is to build the drone, NASA’s director of robotic Mars exploration, Jim Watzin, said that it has performed almost 90 minutes of testing using a model within a Martian atmosphere test chamber.

Perhaps most excitingly, NASA believes that if the project is successful and makes it to the Mars 2020 mission, future astronauts could one day fly helicopters on Mars.

“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,” Watzin said.

Meanwhile, NASA added that the next Mars rover, which will play a crucial part in the 2020 mission, is in the midst of assembly. It will spend its operational life searching for organic compounds to see if life ever flourished on the Red Planet.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic