The NASA drone headed for Mars

The NASA drone headed for Mars
© Getty Images

SpaceX was in the middle of the successful launch of a Bangladeshi communications satellite when NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced that the Mars 2020 rover mission would also carry a small, helicopter drone. “Our next rover to Mars will carry the first helicopter ever to fly over the surface of another world.”

Even though the commercial space world was in the midst of being thrilled at the latest version of the SpaceX Falcon 9, Bridenstine’s announcement generated a great deal of excitement, Rep John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonNASA's Europa Clipper has been liberated from the Space Launch System Texas Republicans sound post-2020 alarm bells 2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump's NASA moon program MORE (R-Texas) seemed to set the tone when he tweeted, “This exciting and visionary achievement will inspire young people all over the United States to become scientists and engineers, paving the way for even greater discoveries in the future!” Culberson’s opinion matters a lot because he is the chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.


NASA has been working on the idea of a helicopter drone on Mars since 2013. The space agency describes the result of four years of development as a vehicle that “weighs in at little under four pounds (1.8 kilograms). Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rpm — about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.” The vehicle will be powered by solar panels with lithium-ion batteries and will have a heating unit to allow it to survive the Martian night. 


The Mars Helicopter is very much a high risk but high reward technology demonstration project. It will deploy off the bottom of the Mars 2020 rover, which will move away to expose the vehicle to the Martian sky. Then, as NASA describes it, “The full 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights.” … “On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds.” The Mars Helicopter will fly autonomously, as the distance between Earth and the Red Planet is too great to allow a controller to fly it in real time with a joystick.

Aerial drones would be very useful for future Mars explorers. Future Mars helicopters would scout ahead to determine what is over the next hill. They could also be used to deliver supplies to astronauts who have embarked away from a Mars base camp to explore the surrounding landscape.

Of course, Bridenstine had not made his announcement for more than a minute when suggestions start to pour in about what to name the Mars Helicopter. Home Hickam, the famous author of “Rocket Boys” sent one that was part historical and part whimsical. “Suggested names: Wilbur, Orville, or Ivan (after Sikorsky). Or if you want to call it Homer, that's fine. I was in a helicopter crash in Vietnam, after all.”

One idea that will certainly not make the cut was “Chopper McChopperface.” NASA will more than likely open up the naming of the Mars Helicopter to school children, following its standard practice in naming things that go to Mars.

Then, a few years from now, long before humans will tread in the Martian soil, something from the planet Earth will take off and soar through Mara’ arid, thin atmosphere. 

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”