The Mars rovers are happy trucking around the surface of Mars, but would love to have a small drone to scout out the territory around them. Their onboard cameras can't see past tall ridges and large mounds.
A helicopter with a camera could fly ahead of the rover each day, checking out various possible points of interest and helping NASA engineers back on Earth plan the best driving route. A drone could triple the distance a Mars rover covers each day. We currently have two inactive rovers, Sojourner and Spirit, and two active rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, operating on Mars. The helicopter is being designed for future Mars rovers.
It’s no easy challenge to fly a drone on Mars. Rotors blades work well on Earth by spinning and producing lift due to the density of our atmosphere. Mars has 3/8 of the gravity on earth and 100 times less atmosphere. The blades must spin at least 2400 rpm to provide enough lift to fly.
The helicopter would have a solar panel on the top to provide energy for a few minutes of flight each day. This would allow it to travel about 1/3 of a mile (half km). It is proposed to weigh about 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) and measure 3.6 feet (1.1 meters) across the blades. The prototype looks a lot like a tissue box with propellers!
Watch now to see how the Mars Helicopter will work:
See more about the Mars helicopter at JPL.