NASA testing new autonomous drone helicopter to explore Mars

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Jan 26, 2015, 11:44 AM EST (Updated)

After spending a decade or so cruising around on the Red Planet, NASA has figured out that the big problem with Mars exploration is the toll that unforgiving alien planet has on the tech. So why not get off the ground?

The space agency is piloting tests for a new, autonomous helicopter drone that could eventually zip around Mars and scope out areas too treacherous for a rover to reach. NASA researchers say the project could “triple the distances that Mars rovers can drive in a Martian day.” The idea is for the helicopter to fly ahead of a ground-based rover, help plan the route and identify interesting features for further exploration.

It would obviously give the team back on Earth a much closer view of the surface than trying to pinpoint a route from orbit via satellite, and a two-pronged approach makes a lot of sense — you know, at least until we can get some flesh-and-blood humans on the ground up there.

The concept is fairly similar to the old-fashioned drones flying all over our planet, and the team expects it to weigh 2.2 pounds and measure 3.6 feet from the tip of one blade to the other. The prototype body, shown in concept art above, resembles a medium-size cubic tissue box.

(Via NASA)