Mars helicopter being tested at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is testing a Mars helicopter that would fly around the Red Planet, scouting at low altitude and helping the ground-bound rover cover at least three times its current distance each day.

JPL scientists explain that getting around Mars is no easy business. They are grateful for the NASA rovers, which have delivered a wealth of data about the history and composition of the Red Planet.

However, what a rover can see is limited by the view of its onboard cameras, while images of orbiting spacecraft are the only other clues to where the vehicle should go.

To have a better idea of where to explore and what’s worth studying on Mars, it would be extremely useful to have a low-flying aircraft, the scientists say.

Mars helicopter

A Mars helicopter could triple the distance that the rover could drive in a Martian day, and help locate targets of interest more rapidly. (Image: NASA’s JPL)

NASA’s JPL wrote:

“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.”

The Mars chopper would fly ahead of its six-wheeled companion almost on a daily basis, checking out various possible points of interest, and also helping Engineers back home plan the best driving route.

The helicopter photos could also be used by scientists to look for features for the rover to examine in further detail.

It could also check out where the best places might be for the rover to collect key samples and rocks for a cache, which a next-generation rover could gather later.

The aircraft is envisioned to weight 1kg (2.2 lbs) and measure 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) across from blade-tip to blade-tip. The JPL team say the prototype body looks like a medium-size cubic tissue box.

NASA’s JPL wrote:

“The current design is a proof-of-concept technology demonstration that has been tested at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.”

Video – Mars Helicopter

Mike Meacham, a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, talks about the proposed Mars helicopter.