This Mars helicopter will image the Red Planet from the skies

NASA put the finishing touches on its interplanetary drone, which will take off from the surface of Mars equipped with a high-resolution camera.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
2 min read

An artistic concept of the Mars helicopter and its rover counterpart.


NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars along with the Mars 2020 rover, which is intended to land on the planet in 2021. The 'copter recently passed a number of key tests, but NASA has put the finishing touches on it ahead of its history-making journey.

With a new solar panel being installed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in May and some tests of the machine's rotors, the Mars helicopter gets closer to achieving its goal: Flying through the thin atmosphere of the Red Planet.

Mars isn't flat. That provides unique challenges for ground-based robots like Curiosity, its dearly departed predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, and even the stationary InSight lander. Eventually, Mars wears them down and sometimes they get cracks in their wheels or they get trapped in the soil.

Watch this: NASA's Mars helicopter passes flight tests

But a helicopter-type drone doesn't have to contend with the dangerous Martian soil like other robotic Martian inhabitants. If it can take to the skies, it provides NASA with a chance to survey cliffs from close-up, sneak into caves and land in hard-to-reach places. At least, that's the concept for future missions.

The Mars helicopter, pictured below, won't actually be doing any experimenting on Mars this time around. Rather, it's a tech demonstration model that aims to prove we can fly robots on Mars. If it all goes well, it will pave the way for future exploration of the planet via the sky.


The real Mars helicopter photographed as it sat in a clean room on Feb. 14, 2019.


However the futuristic chopper, which weighs just 1.8 kilograms (around 4 pounds), does come equipped with a high-resolution camera. The cam will showcase the potential of aerial examination in Mars' atmosphere, rather than search for aliens lurking in any unseen dark areas of Mars.

But with a new solar panel and a couple more tests under its belt, is NASA now ready to get to the chopper? Not quite.

"We expect to complete our final tests and refinements and deliver the helicopter to the High Bay 1 clean room for integration with the rover sometime this summer," said MiMi Aung, the project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, "but we will never really be done with testing the helicopter until we fly at Mars."

The simulations suggest the chopper has a decent chance of success -- but getting to Mars is incredibly difficult, landing on the planet is even more difficult and then taking off once more? Crank the difficulty up again. If NASA pulls off flight on a planet over 200 million kilometers from Earth, it will be a feat akin to the Wright Brothers' first flight in 1903.

Dying Space Missions Remembered in Inspirational Final Images

See all photos