It is looking like Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity will get some company in Mars.
Rovers have a tough time getting across Mars’ vast, unforgiving landscape. They can’t see very far ahead, and the crew back home can only offer so much help by looking at orbital imagery. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory may have a clever solution to that problem, though: an aerial robot scout. Its proposed Mars Helicopter drone would fly ahead of rovers and give operators a much better view of the Martian terrain, helping them plot the quickest route to interesting locales. It could even find a safe spot to deposit samples that future rovers would pick up.
The robotic chopper currently exists as just a tech demo, and it’ll take some testing to prove that this small automaton (it’s 3.6 feet from blade to blade) is ready for the Red Planet. If it makes the cut, though, it could let Mars rovers cover much more ground than they have so far — JPL estimates that these machines could travel three times further in a given day. The project could easily be worthwhile if it means both completing missions faster and discovering things about Mars that would otherwise go unnoticed.
The Mars Helicopter is still being tested at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. and is being proposed as an add-on to future rover missions, but it hasn’t been approved yet. Even if the Mars Helicopter gets approved it will have to wait a while until it is sent to Mars.