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Someday A Helicopter Drone May Fly Over Mars And Help A Rover

Nov 27, 2015
Originally published on November 27, 2015 7:48 am
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Is there ever a time when cool trumps science?

It's a question that becomes relevant when you consider NASA's plans to put a helicopter drone on an upcoming rover mission to Mars.

Think about it. If you tell a friend that NASA's Mars 2020 mission will have an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer on board for determining the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials, you'll probably be greeted with a blank look.

Tell that friend the mission will be carrying a helicopter drone that will fly over the rover and take aerial photos, and the response is more likely, "Wow, that's cool."

Well, that was my reaction, anyway.

Now you might be thinking, wait a minute, there's not a lot of atmosphere on Mars, so is there enough air for a helicopter's rotors to push against?

NASA scientist Matthew Golombek says yes, the atmosphere on Mars is pretty thin. "But there is enough atmosphere to actually do stuff with wings or rotors," he says.

He says tests in a chamber that simulates the Martian atmosphere have proven that.

Golombek works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. As a serious scientist, his first reason for wanting a helicopter drone on a Mars rover mission isn't poetic or cool, it's scientific.

"The rover spends a fair amount of time wandering around looking for the good stuff to go analyze," Golombek says. "The idea for the helicopter is if you could get that beforehand, then the rover wouldn't need to wander around, it would know exactly where to go. Where are the best out-crops. Where are the key relations that you want to study."

The helicopter drone Golombek wants to send to Mars is a pretty simple affair. It has two, 3-foot-long rotor blades that rotate in opposite direction for stability. Below the rotors are a couple of boxes that hold the drone's electronics. There's also a solar panel for charging the drone's batteries.

"Mounted on the outside of this is a small camera that takes pictures," Golombek says, "and that's it."

The whole thing weighs just a bit more than 2 pounds. And to keep costs down, Golombek says NASA has tried to use off-the-shelf parts. For example, a GoPro camera right out of the box. Tests show that will work on Mars.

Even though Golombek is a serious scientist, that doesn't mean he's immune to a kind of magical feeling that comes from working on the team that's running Opportunity, a rover that's been roaming Mars for almost 12 years.

"We have a presence on Mars, a continuous presence on Mars, with a bunch of people that are Martians. I'm a Martian," Golombek says with a laugh. "Maybe not me personally, but my brain is there with the rover."

He says pictures from a helicopter flying above a rover rolling across Mars will only reinforce that feeling of being there. "In a sense that's humanity being on another plant," he says. "First small step."

It may be a while before we can take that first small step. For now at least cool didn't trump science. NASA chose other scientific instrument for the 2020 mission, in part because the agency wanted to make sure the drone would work as advertised. It still may get there on a future mission.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It cost NASA a boatload of money to send equipment to Mars, which is why when the space agency chooses the instruments to send on a rover mission, it chooses ones it expects will yield the most valuable scientific data. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca began to wonder if cool ever trumps science when he learned about a plan to send a helicopter drone to Mars.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: It might not quite make it to one of my big ideas, but it sure is a cool idea.

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PALCA: Imagine you put a camera on the helicopter. It lifts off. The opening shot, a panorama taken of the Martian hills, then we pan to the right, and we see a NASA rover sitting majestically on the edge of a crater. But wait a minute. I thought there wasn't a lot of atmosphere on Mars, not enough air for the helicopter rotors to push against. NASA scientist Matthew Golombek says, yes, the atmosphere on Mars is pretty thin.

MATTHEW GOLOMBEK: But there is enough atmosphere to actually do stuff with wings or rotors.

PALCA: He says they've tested that in a chamber that simulates the Martian atmosphere here on earth. Now, Golombek works at NASA's jet propulsion laboratory. And as a serious scientist, his first reason for wanting a helicopter drone on a Mars rover mission isn't poetic or cool. It's scientific.

GOLOMBEK: The rover spends a fair amount of time wandering around, looking for the good stuff to go analyze. And the idea for the helicopter is if you could get that beforehand, then the rover wouldn't need to wander around. It would know exactly where to go. Where are the best outcrops? Where are the key relations that you want to study?

PALCA: The helicopter drone Golombek wants to send to Mars is a pretty simple affair. It has two 3-foot long rotor blades that rotate in opposite directions for stability. Below the rotors are a couple of boxes about the size of tissue boxes that hold the drone's electronics.

GOLOMBEK: Mounted on the outside of this is a small camera that takes pictures. And that's it.

PALCA: The whole thing weighs just a bit more than 2 pounds. And to keep costs down, Golombek says they've tried to use off-the-shelf parts.

GOLOMBEK: What we had for our initial concept was a GoPro camera, I mean, literally right out of the box (laughter).

PALCA: Well, I guess it's good to know your GoPro will work on Mars if you're going there on vacation. As I said, Golombek is a serious guy, but that doesn't mean he's immune to a kind of magical feeling that comes from working on the team that's running the Mars rover Opportunity, a rover that's been roving for almost 12 years now.

GOLOMBEK: We have a presence on Mars, a continuous presence on Mars with a bunch of people that are Martians. I'm a Martian. I'm on Mars. And it may be not me personally, but my brain is there with the rover.

PALCA: And Golombek says pictures from a helicopter flying above a rover rolling across Mars will only reinforce that feeling of being there.

GOLOMBEK: And in a sense, that's humanity being on another planet, first small step.

PALCA: But it may be a while before we can take that first small step. For now at least, cool didn't trump science. NASA decided against putting the drone on the next mission to Mars in 2020 in part because the agency wanted to be sure it would work on Mars as advertised. Now the mission after that, we'll wait and see. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.