Decision expected soon on adding helicopter to Mars 2020

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WASHINGTON — NASA is expected to make a decision later this month on whether to include a small helicopter as a technology demonstration on the Mars 2020 rover despite concerns by scientists that it might distract from the rover’s science mission.

Mars 2020 is scheduled to pass a project development milestone known as Key Decision Point D later this month. That review will formally clear the mission to enter its assembly, test and launch phase, with launch scheduled for July 2020.

Speaking at a meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board here May 1, Steve Jurczyk, NASA acting associate administrator, said the review, scheduled for late May, will also give the agency the opportunity to decide whether to include a small helicopter on the rover. That helicopter has been under development for several years, including flying it in a chamber at Mars atmospheric conditions.

Ken Farley, the project scientist for Mars 2020, said later at the meeting that the project expects NASA Headquarters to make a decision “very shortly” about adding the helicopter. “I expect that there will be an announcement soon,” he said in a May 3 presentation about Mars 2020.

The helicopter is being developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory independently of the Mars 2020 mission, but there has been coordination to ensure that the helicopter could be added to the rover. “The Mars 2020 project has done everything that is necessary to accommodate that helicopter,” he said.

If added, the helicopter would operate for only about 30 days early in the rover’s mission, Farley said. It is intended to primarily be a technology demonstration to show how such a vehicle could be a scout for future rovers or carry out additional science.

If NASA did decide to add the helicopter, it would be only after determining that its inclusion would not significantly increase the overall risk of the mission. “Everybody agrees it will not put the mission at risk,” he said. “All the decisions that are being made have to honor that.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that the project supports adding the helicopter even if it doesn’t increase the mission’s risk. “I am not an advocate for the helicopter, and I don’t believe the Mars 2020 project has been an advocate for the helicopter,” he said. That opposition is based on the belief that the helicopter will be a distraction, taking away from the rover’s primary science work, at least for a short time.

“This comes right out of science time,” Farley said. “I have personally been opposed to it because we are working very hard for efficiencies and spending 30 days working on a technology demonstration does not further those goals directly from the science point of view.”

Improving the efficiency of the rover’s operations on the Martian surface, compared to those of the Curiosity rover, is a major area of emphasis for Mars 2020 given its ambitious science goals, which include collecting samples for later return to Earth. At the meeting, he said mission designers were working to reduce the “operational timeline” between the time the rover returns data to Earth and new commands are sent to the cover. The goal is a five-hour turnaround, he said, about half as long as with Curiosity operations.

While waiting for its latest review and a decision on the helicopter, the Mars 2020 mission is addressing some technical issues. One is a fracture of the heat shield intended to protect the spacecraft when entering the Martian atmosphere. JPL announced April 26 that the heat shield, originally developed for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission that landed Curiosity on Mars in 2012, cracked during testing earlier in the month at a Lockheed Martin facility.

“We’re too early to know exactly what happened,” Farley said, but noted that the heat shield was a “pathfinder” for the one flown on MSL and was not the exact same design. “Our intention, I believe, going forward is to build a new heat shield using the actual design that MSL used.”

The mission is also developing improved parachutes, work Farley said was driven by the failure of similar parachutes on NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project. “It raised doubts about whether supersonic parachutes were fully understood,” he said.

That work feature testing of parachutes on sounding rockets, such as a March 31 launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. “Testing has not yet reached the most extreme conditions that it will be tested to, but so far, so good on that,” he said.

Another pending decision for Mars 2020 is the selection of a landing site. A workshop in October will bring together scientists to discuss the merits of the three finalists: Columbia Hills, Jezero Crater and Northeast Syrtis. That workshop will produce a ranked list of the three to deliver to NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, who will make the final decision.

“This is going to be a challenge,” Farley said of the upcoming workshop. “In many ways it feels to me like most people’s opinions are completely locked in and it becomes almost a religious preference.”

Farley said that one alternative is a compromise landing site, dubbed “Midway,” that is roughly halfway between Jezero and NE Syrtis, which are only 40 to 50 kilometers apart. Midway is similar in geology to NE Syrtis and is in driving range from Jezero.

“We have to do further investigation to see whether that is desirable and whether it’s feasible,” he said. If it is, “Maybe we can have our cake and eat it, too.”