Our exploration of Mars so far has been limited to rovers and orbiters. But NASA has a plan to send an aerial vehicle there in the future, and it looks pretty awesome.
Called the Mars Electric Reusable Flyer (MERF), the small vehicle about an arm span across would use two movable propellers to take off vertically, and then fly horizontally over the surface.
The vehicle is entirely autonomous, which is a good thing considering communications with Mars are delayed by tens of minutes owing to its great distance away.
The flyer is a VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) vehicle
In the video below, the team behind it from NASA’s Langley Research Center revealed some interesting aspects of the flyer. To get to the surface, it could be transported by a rover, which would also deploy it there. The flyer would have reusable batteries, so once its power ran low, it could land and be recharged by the rover.
Using an aerial vehicle would give us a whole new way to explore Mars. Currently, we’re limited to slow-moving rovers, which must remain in relatively smooth areas with few obstacles. In the air, though, this vehicle could cosy up to cliffs, explore rocky outcrops, and more. It could even fly into caves and caverns on the surface, areas that we know very little about.
Mars has numerous caves and canyons
For future human missions, such a vehicle could act as a scout too. It could fly ahead of explorers to map out a path, or explore an area near a Martian base while humans controlled it remotely. NASA has already been testing the vehicle, building a prototype on Earth and showcasing how it can switch between vertical and horizontal flight.
There’s little chance of it going on NASA’s next rover, the 2020 Mars Rover, with a launch date not too far away. But perhaps a rover in the future will be accompanied by this aerial vehicle. For rapid exploration of the surface of Mars, it would really be a game-changer.