NASA Planning to Explore Mars by Air

NASA is set to launch its most ambitious autonomous vehicle mission to date, the Mars Helicopter Scout. The fuselage of the dual-rotor helicopter is no bigger than a softball and it will allow the agency to explore the skies of the Red Planet for the first time in history.


The Mars Helicopter Scout will hitch a ride to the Red Planet secured to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover. Once on the surface, operators will find a suitable location to deploy the helicopter. Once on the surface, its onboard solar panels can begin charging its lithium-ion batteries readying the Mars Helicopter for its first flight.

According to a NASA announcement, the Mars Helicopter Scout will perform a 30-day flight test once it’s deployed. The test will include around five flights that will aim to cover incrementally father distances. The first flight will see the helicopter climb to around 3 meters (10 feet) and hover for around 30 seconds. The longest flight is planned for just 90 seconds.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

If the Mars Helicopter Scout mission proves successful, it could open the door for future low-flying scout vehicles and aerial rovers.

NASA’s History of Aerial Rovers

This is not the first time NASA has aimed to explore the skies of the Red Planet. In the 1970s, the first proposals for an aerial vehicle to explore Mars produced the Mini-Sniffer aircraft. There were three variants of the Mini-Sniffer created between 1975 and 1982, each designed to operate in an all-CO2 environment. The design was considered for the Viking missions but never used.

The Mars Sniffer plane was designed by NASA between 1975 and 1982.
Mars Sniffer I – Image credit: NASA

In the 1990s, NASA again proposed a winged rover to commemorate the anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. The ARES Mars airplane was proposed but ultimately never used. Finally, in 2015 an aerial rover was again considered. Early designs called for an aircraft with a 1.2-meter wingspan and a mass of around 2.1 kilograms. The aircraft would be released during descent at an altitude of around 5 kilometers. It would then glide for around 4 minutes covering around 25 kilometers.

Featured image credit: NASA (screenshot)