NASA is trying to determine whether it should accompany the new rover en route to mars with an unmanned aerial drone that'll fly across the surface of Mars.
The space agency is reportedly working on a drone that could patrol Mars and potentially explore parts of the planet more easily than a ground-based rover could.
Plans are going well, it seems. NASA is already testing a drone that is able to navigate the Red Planet's thin atmosphere, a NASA representative confirmed. If the space agency pushes through with it, the drone could launch alongside the Mars 2020 rover.
NASA's Mars Drone
Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been developed in helicopter for several years, modifying certain parts and mechanism to take into account Mars's more challenging conditions. For starters, the atmospheric pressure on the planet is less than a percent compared with Earth, and its gravity is less strong as well.
A model of this drone was able to fly for an hour and 26 minutes inside a test chamber that simulated the Martian atmosphere.
"Some parts were removed from the helicopter to compensate for the 1g (gravity) field to get the proper relationship of mass and acceleration at Mars, and we did controlled takeoffs, slewing, translations, hovers and controlled landings in the chamber. We've done that multiple times," said Jim Watzin, robotic Mars exploration director at NASA.
Watzin notes that NASA will decide "later this spring" whether to launch the drone alongside the new rover. If approved, the drone will carry two cameras, one for navigation and the other for taking pictures. It will not travel near the rover to avoid potential collisions, according to NASA. If the drone actually works, it might open the doors to more drones being sent to mars for further data collection.
Mars 2020 Rover
The Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to launch in, as the name suggests, 2020. NASA recently confirmed that it has started entering the assembly, test, and launch stage. Once launched, the journey will be quite long, with the rover not reaching the Red Planet until 2021.
One of the major experiments planned for the rover is to test whether it can transform carbon dioxide into oxygen in Mars, which could be a landmark test that'll determine whether future astronauts can use the planet's natural resources to produce air, water, and fuel.
NASA plans to launch manned missions to Mars in the 2030s.