Driving on the surface of Mars pretty much sucks. Even though the Opportunity rover celebrated its 11th anniversary on the Martian surface today, that robust little craft has also ran into tricky sand dunes and other perplexing surface anomalies. It sure would be nice if some aerial reconnaissance could identified these potential snags before they happen.
Luckily, NASA has the same idea. Earlier this week, NASA spilled some details on a Martian scout helicopter that would let rovers better understand their surroundings. They'd also give scientists a bird's eye view what's around the rover and what might be worth poking and prodding a little further.
The current blueprints put this "helicopter" more in the drone category. Weighing just under a kilogram (and will be almost three times lighter than that on Mars) with a blade diameter of just over a metre. In a video published by the Jet Propulsion Labs as part of its "Crazy Engineering" video series, JPL Chief Engineer Bob Balaram describes some the engineering challenges with designing a rotor-based vehicle for Mars' low-density atmosphere. The 'copter would need to be autonomous, lightweight, but also rugged enough to withstand Mars' harsh conditions.
The rover would be used very sparingly throughout the day. In fact, only once for about two to three minutes. But Balaram says that should be enough time for the vehicle to travel about half a kilometer, which is much faster than Oppy's current 3.2km-per-year speed.
Image via NASA