An important enhancement for NASA’s 2020 Martian rover is the inclusion of a 2.2 pound helicopter that will scout the terrain for the explorer.
The ability to see beyond the range of a rover’s cameras makes selection of “safe passage routes” significantly easier. This will increase the speed at which a rover can move to a destination of interest.
Building a helicopter seem like an easy task for the technology mavens of JPL but some design challenges had never been faced before according to Bob Balaram, Chief Engineer of JPL’s Mobility and Robotics Systems.
While Mars has only three-eighths Earth’s gravity, its atmosphere is one hundred times less dense. Mission requirements, size and weight restrictions had to be incorporated into a design that could survive the hostile environment of Mars over the projected life of the rover. Balaram’s team has packed all of these capabilities into a 2.2 pound package the size of a cubic tissue box.
According to Balaram, the copter is expected to fly two to three minutes every day, to distances of half a kilometer or so from the rover.
Balaram believes that the most dangerous part of each day’s mission will be landing, which he described as “seven seconds of terror”.
The prototype is being tested under Martian conditions and NASA plans to have it ready for the launch of the 2020 Rover.
Here’s a link to a JPL video describing the helicopter.