They can withstand the brutal Martian atmosphere (at least what’s left of it), crawl over its red, rocky landscape and gather data and make discoveries that will eventually go viral on the internet. Curiosity can even identify targets for analysis using its own computer brain. Futuristic abilities aside, there is actually something Mars rovers are unable to do: fly. Cue the drones.
Satellites can hover several miles above a rover, but even with a view like that, they are too far above the hills and craters to anticipate the next thing that might be waiting to be unearthed from the dust. Drones could get much closer—but they also have issues. Because any message transmitted from Earth takes several minutes to make a round trip to Mars and back, a helicopter drone needs to be autonomous. Flying on its own would mean that it has to have the technology to sense what it needs to glide over and when it needs to land before it experiences a power blackout. If the drone is ignorant about when it’s low on power, it could crash and obliterate the mission.
So what will drones zero in on? Dust, for one. The European Space Agency concept published in the journal Ars Astronautica includes a dust particle analyzer that will examine dust swirling close to the dry and cracked surface. Led by the Aerospace Laboratory for Innovative Components, a team of scientists recently concluded a feasibility study for what they are calling the Small Mars System (SMS) and are anticipating the start of Phase A as soon as there is adequate funding. Martian dust is worth the millions it will take to launch the project, because what it reveals will be priceless in determining biological and chemical conditions that could influence future missions to the Red Planet.
"The dust is known to play a key role in the climate of Mars, specifically in the interactions between the soil and the atmosphere, the atmospheric circulation and the thermal balance," said research fellow and team member Elena Fantino.
This drone will be a little like a Transformer in that it will be designed to change shape by retracting as they launch and zoom from planet to planet, then spread their mechanical wings when they fly into Mars’ upper atmosphere. This should make landing as uncomplicated as possible. The team also believes that adding an aerial drone to SMS will provide a demonstration of the technology it takes to navigate the Martian air as it simultaneously takes pictures of the surface from above. Elements they are also taking into consideration include performance, power, communications, capability for multiple flights, mass, and ways to send updates to Earth.
Whether the drone will be solely battery-powered and rechargeable or assisted in flight by solar power is still up for debate. How it will be stowed is something else the team will need to figure out. The final challenge is configuring this contraption to fly on Mars, since it will need a rotor that out-rotates Earth with significantly longer blades. Otherwise, the project’s relatively low budget and reuse of existing technology mean it will eventually take off.