With Mars In Sight having departed for the Red Planet for a late November landing, NASA is preparing for the Mars 2020 rover, an enhanced version of the Mars Curiosity that is currently rolling about the Martian surface. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced on Twitter that the Mars 2020 would have another enhancement.

What will the Mars Helicopter do?

The Mars Helicopter, which will no doubt undergo a name change when NASA sets up a contest for school children, will be a technology demonstrator to determine how aerial drones will fly on the Red Planet.

The aerial vehicle will come equipped with solar panels that will recharge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating unit to allow it to survive the Martian nights. The vehicle will weigh at just four pounds and will have a fuselage the size of a softball. Its counter-rotating blades will revolve at 3,000 RPM, about ten times the speed of a helicopter flying over Earth, made necessary by the thin, Martian atmosphere.

When the Mars 2020 Rover lands on Mars, the Mars Helicopter will deploy from the bottom of the space probe. Then the rover will move away, and the aerial vehicle will conduct a series of at least five flight tests over 30 days of more and more further distances, up to 100 meters. Because Mars is far away from Earth, with radio signals taking at least 20 minutes to cross interplanetary space, the Mars Helicopter will fly autonomously and not via a human operated joy stick as drones on Earth are controlled.

Flying over Mars

If Mars Helicopter works, it will constitute another space first for NASA, the first flight on another world. Aerial drones will be of great use for future explorers. They will perform such tasks as conducting surveys of the Martian landscape in advance of land-based sorties and delivering supplies to groups of astronauts who are away from the main landing site.

One place on Mars where drones would be of some use would be caverns created by lava tubes. Laval tube caverns are formed when fast moving lava creates voids beneath the surface. Scientists speculate that since the interiors of such caverns are shielded from radiation and temperature extremes, microbial life may still exist within them.

Indeed, future Mars settlements could be constructed within the caverns, protected from the harsh conditions of the Martian surface.

Mars 2020 is scheduled currently to launch sometime in July 2020 with a landing slated for February 2021. One of the rover’s tasks will be to collect soil and rock samples for a later mission that will pick them up and return them to Earth.