NASA engineers are busy developing a small helicopter that could “scout” a trail for future Mars rovers to land and explore the surface of the Red Planet.
The low-flying Mars helicopter would fly ahead of the rover almost every day, checking out various possible points of interest and helping engineers back on Earth plan the best direction to drvie it ahead in that route, said the US space agency.
The proposed helicopter could potentially triple the distance these vehicles currently drive in a day on Mars and provide a better and new level of visual information for choosing which sites to explore by Martian rovers.
The helicopter images will also help to look for features for the rover to study in detail. In addition, the helicopter would check out the best places for the rover to collect key samples and rocks for a cache, which a next-generation rover could pick up later.
“Enter the Mars Helicopter, a proposed add-on to Mars rovers of the future that could potentially triple the distance these vehicles currently drive in a Martian day, and deliver a new level of visual information for choosing which sites to explore,” said a statement.
Weighing about 1 kg, the vehicle measuring 1.1 metres across from the tip of one blade to the other will be more like a medium-size box.
So far, each NASA rover has provided enormous information about the composition of the Red Planet but a rover’s vision is limited by its on-board cameras, and images from spacecraft orbiting Mars are the only other clues to where to drive it.
The new helicopter would provide a better sense as to where to go and what’s worth studying ahead on Mars for rovers.
The current prototype has been developed and tested at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.