Elachi Touts Helicopter Scout for Mars Sample-Caching Rover


WASHINGTON — The outgoing director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Nov. 19 floated the idea of sending a small scout helicopter to the red planet along with the Mars 2020 sample caching rover headed there in 2020.

“It’s not approved for that mission yet, but we are doing the technology which will enable us to actually have a drone which will fly around the rover, survey the area in front of it and enable the rover to basically drive more efficiently,” JPL Director Charles Elachi said after a luncheon speech on Capitol Hill hosted by the Space Transportation Association. “So you’ll have a drone taking the survey and sending the data to the rover and having the rover avoid hazards.”

JPL has been touting its Mars Helicopter since January but has not before linked it to any particular mission. The drone would be solar powered and capable of flying for two to three minutes a day, according to a video JPL uploaded to youtube earlier this year.

A scouting drone could help the Mars 2020 rover avoid the sort of mission-ending misstep that got the smaller Spirit rover — the twin of the still-operational Opportunity rover — stuck in martian sand in 2009.

The Mars 2020 rover is charged with drilling martian surface cores, which it will leave on the ground for some future mission — or missions — to retrieve, package, and launch into space for eventual return to Earth.

Although the Mars Helicopter has not been confirmed as part of Mars 2020, JPL is pressing ahead with proof-of-concept tests.

“By March of next year — we’re actually building a full-scale helicopter, 1 kilogram size — we’re going to put it in a chamber and simulate, exactly, the Mars atmosphere,” Elachi said. “We have done some tests and we’re confident it will [fly].”

Earlier this year, JPL engineers successfully flew a scale-model Mars Helicopter in a Mars atmosphere chamber, said Elachi, who in October announced he would retire from JPL in June.