The robotic rovers driving across the surface of Mars are limited by what their onboard cameras can see.
If they could see further ahead, they might be able to travel three times as far in a single Martian day, enabling them to better find sites to explore and gather more information, faster, than they can today.
To speed up the rovers' work, NASA is considering sending a robotic helicopter to Mars that could act as a scout for their explorations.
"So why would we want to put a helicopter on Mars?" asks Mike Meacham, a mechanical engineer with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in a video presentation. "If I'm the rover right now, I can't really see the terrain behind me. But if I had a helicopter with a camera on it, all of a sudden, I can see a whole lot more."
Dubbed the Mars Helicopter, the robot could be an add-on to future Mars rovers. Weighing 2.2 pounds and measuring 3.6 feet from the tip of one blade to the other, the helicopter would be able to detach from the rover and fly on its own.
So far, JPL engineers have built a proof-of-concept prototype and have been testing it in a 25-foot vacuum chamber.
Because of the difference between the atmosphere on Earth and on Mars, the helicopter's blades would have to spin at about 2,400 rpm to provide lift, NASA said.
"The system is designed to fly for two to three minutes every day," said Bob Balaram, a chief engineer at JPL. "There's a solar panel on the top and that provides us with enough energy for that short flight, as well as to keep us warm through the night. So in those two to three minutes, we expect to have daily flights of about half a kilometer or so."
For now the JPL team is focused on relentlessly testing the helicopter.
"Because this thing is going to take off every day and land every day, we want to make sure we have a bulletproof landing system, and landing is the riskiest part of any mission," Balaram said.
NASA is scheduled to send another robotic rover to Mars in 2020.