May 31st, 2018

Flying in Martian Skies: NASA’s 2020 Rover Mission Will Include Tiny Helicopter

Artist’s conception of the autonomous, drone-like Mars Helicopter, which will be sent to Mars along with the 2020 rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Excitement has been building for NASA’s next rover mission to Mars, scheduled to launch sometime in 2020. Although it looks a lot like the current Curiosity rover, its mission will be to search directly for possible evidence of past life. Curiosity, on the other hand, is studying the ancient habitability of Gale crater, which we now know used to hold a lake or series of lakes, focusing more on geology than biology. And now the upcoming 2020 mission just got even better – NASA has approved the inclusion of a tiny drone-like helicopter to accompany the rover!

This is something never done before, and assuming it’s successful, will be the first time that Mars has been robotically explored by something other than an orbiter, lander or rover.

The Mars Helicopter will be a small, drone-like autonomous rotorcraft, designed specifically for Mars’ very thin atmosphere; it will provide a unique and exciting new way to see the Martian landscape as never before – a bird’s-eye view, if you will. And of course, it’s just very cool.

February 13th, 2018

Piece of Mars is Going Home

A slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars placed inside an oxygen plasma cleaner, which removes organics from the outside of surfaces. This slice will likely be used here on Earth for testing a laser instrument for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover; a separate slice will go to Mars on the rover.

A chunk of Mars will soon be returning home.

A piece of a meteorite called Sayh al Uhaymir 008 (SaU008) will be carried on board NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, now being built at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. This chunk will serve as target practice for a high-precision laser on the rover’s arm.

Mars 2020’s goal is ambitious: collect samples from the Red Planet’s surface that a future mission could potentially return to Earth. One of the rover’s many tools will be a laser designed to illuminate rock features as fine as a human hair.

That level of precision requires a calibration target to help tweak the laser’s settings. Previous NASA rovers have included calibration targets as well. Depending on the instrument, the target material can include things like rock, metal or glass, and can often look like a painter’s palette.

But working on this particular instrument sparked an idea among JPL scientists: why not use an actual piece of Mars? Earth has a limited supply of Martian meteorites, which scientists determined were blasted off Mars’ surface millions of years ago.

These meteorites aren’t as unique as the geologically diverse samples 2020 will collect. But they’re still scientifically interesting — and perfect for target practice.