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Sci-Tech

Helicopters on Mars: NASA proposes flying eyes for rovers

NASA's Mars rovers have already made inroads on Martian soil. The next realm to explore may well be the sky with the addition of low-flying scout helicopters.

NASA helicopter for Mars
A NASA Mars helicopter prototype waits for takeoff. Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Once they've landed, Mars rovers are ground-dwelling creatures, limited by the height of their cameras as to how far ahead and beyond they can see. Tall terrain can block the view, leaving both the rover and the Earth scientists seeing through its eyes wondering what lies beyond. That's why NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is considering helicopters on Mars.

NASA is thinking more along the lines of drones rather than a Air Wolf-sized beast. The atmosphere on Mars is much less dense than on Earth, which poses some technical challenges. As explained in a "Crazy Engineering" video, a mini-chopper made for our planet would have to be modified to weigh less, have bigger rotor blades or rotate its blades faster in order to successfully operate on the Red Planet.

The advantages of a low-flying scout are many. NASA notes that a Mars helicopter sent along as an add-on to a rover "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."

A proof-of-concept Mars mini-chopper prototype has a body about the size of a square tissue box. A prototype has been tested at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory inside a vacuum chamber designed to simulate the atmosphere on Mars. The finished gadget could end up weighing a slim 2.2 pounds with a blade-span of 3.6 feet.

If a helicopter does make it to Mars, it would power up through a solar panel and be able to fly up to three minutes each day, traveling up to a third of a mile. It's an intriguing concept. If it comes to fruition, the next Mars rover we send will have eyes in the sky, as well as on the ground.