NASA Plans to Develop Mars Drone at Arctic Research Base
All robotic missions on Mars have been limited to the actual surface — rovers like Curiosity are reliable, but their range is limited. While Curiosity has driven more than 10 miles on the Martian surface, it took more than five years. A flying drone aircraft could cover much more distance, but developing a Mars drone is no easy feat. NASA has partnered with several private organizations and nonprofits to test some flying machines in the most Martian landscape on Earth: a desolate island in the Canadian Arctic.
The new project is spinning up at NASA’s Haughton Mars Project facility on Devon Island, which is the largest uninhabited island on Earth. It’s uninhabited because of the harsh conditions — it’s what’s known as a polar desert. The growing season is only a few weeks long, and the rest of the year it gets dangerously cold with temperatures as low as -58 degrees Fahrenheit. NASA set up a Mars test facility on Devon Island in the 1990s because of how similar the terrain is to the red planet. The site is located in the Haughton impact crater, a 14-mile depression that was created about 39 million years ago.
Joining NASA in this endeavor are the Mars Institute, the SETI Institute, and FYBR Solutions Inc. By sharing the workload with its partners, NASA hopes it will be able to develop a drone design on Earth that also works reliably on Mars. The surface of the Haughton impact crater is perfect for this testing, but it’s still on Earth. Mars has a much thinner atmosphere that complicates unmanned missions. There’s enough of an atmosphere that landers need protection from the heat of entry, but not enough to use parachutes or standard wing configurations.
One of the leading proposals right now is to develop an extremely lightweight helicopter that would carry a simply camera and instrument package as a “scout drone” for the Mars 2020 rover. It would need to have huge propellers in relation to its size, though. The drone could map terrain surrounding the rover to identify obstacles so operators can move the rover greater distances with each set of instructions. It could also help spot the interesting areas where the rover might be used to take samples and conduct research.
The 2020 rover is expected to be based on Curiosity, but it’ll have more cameras. If the research at the Haughton Mars Project site pays off, it may even have its own little drone.