Mars Helicopter Drone Could Fly Across The Surface

A previous NASA concept. NASA/JPL-Caltech

A European team of scientists has proposed sending a small helicopter-like drone to Mars, as a way to more easily explore the Red Planet’s surface.

The project (picked up by Seeker) is called the Small Mars System (SMS), and is being funded by the European Space Agency (ESA). The concept involves sending a small and low-cost lander with a variety of instruments to explore the surface of Mars, including an aerial drone that flies over the ground.

“The objectives of the mission are both technological and scientific, and will be achieved by delivering a small Mars lander carrying a dust particle analyzer and an aerial drone,” the team writes in their paper, published in Acta Astronautica.

Lead author Elena Fantino from the Space Studies Institute of Catalonia (IEEC) in Barcelona, Spain told IFLScience that the project had completed a feasibility level proposal. "We are applying for funds and financial support to go ahead," she said. They are aiming for a launch in October 2024.

We’ve sent several rovers to Mars before, including the currently active Curiosity and Opportunity, but they’re limited in how much they can explore. Typically, they can move only a few meters per day, making progress across the surface fairly slow.

The idea of sending an aerial drone to Mars has been touted for a while. In the past, we’ve seen proposals from NASA that include a plane-like vehicle and a more traditional helicopter-like device.This European proposal involves sending a small vehicle weighing about 7 kilograms (15 pounds), and no bigger than a toaster. It would be able to fly for seven minutes per flight using rotating blades, taking one Martian day (sol) to recharge its batteries between flights on a charging pad.

It would be able to explore an area of about 320 meters (1,050 feet) in radius from the lander, at an altitude of up to 100 meters (330 feet), and with a top speed of 11 meters (36 feet) per second.

The flight profile of the SMS aerial drone. Fantino et al

On board it would have an imaging camera, to not only return high-resolution images of the surface back to Earth but also to map out the ground so it can autonomously navigate. The images would be transmitted to the lander, where they could then be sent back to Earth using its antenna.

"Unmanned aerial vehicles are the future of robotic exploration," Fantino said. "This specific type of vehicle (a helicopter) offers the additional advantage that it can perform multiple flights."

Another innovation on the SMS would be a deployable heat shield, which would be used to get the lander to the surface. This would save on space at launch, and would be the first deployable heat shield used for Mars atmospheric entry.

Concept of another proposal, the Mars Electric Reusable Flyer (MERF). NASA 
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