NASA is about to land a helicopter on Mars—and is already planning its clawed successor.
On Thursday, February 18, 2021, NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will land in Jezero crater, which is thought to be an ancient river bed on the red planet. Strapped to its belly is a small drone called “Ingenuity” that’s destined to take several short, powered flights.
It will become the first vehicle to fly on another planet.
However, “Ingenuity” is merely a technology demonstrator, and it’s only scheduled to take a few short, solar-powered test flights over the course of a month.
So what comes next?
Cue the Rover–Aerial Vehicle Exploration Networks (RAVEN) project, a next-generation Mars exploration concept that has just been awarded a $3.1 million NASA grant.
Here’s everything you need to know about “Ingenuity” and RAVEN—the future of planetary exploration?
What is Ingenuity?
It’s a three-rotored autonomous rotorcraft—a drone—weighing 4 pounds/1.8 kilograms that will very soon become the first-ever machine to achieve powered flight on another planet in the Solar System.
Its four carbon-fiber blades, arranged into two rotors, will spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm—many times faster than required on Earth—to account for the fact that the atmosphere on Mars is 99% less dense.
NASA’s plan is to deploy it on the Martian surface in the first 90 days of the mission then, attempt a flight.
What will Ingenuity do on Mars?
After a few very short flights it will fly further and higher in an attempt to see what’s ahead of the Perseverance rover.
It’s also got a color camera so should also be able to get images of the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars.
What is RAVEN?
RAVEN is a next-generation Mars exploration concept that will seek to build on NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 mission—and hopefully make “rover + drone” the default way to explore a planet’s surface.
RAVEN has some really exciting new tech:
- RAVEN Claw: a prototype grabbing device attached to a drone that can pick up rocks or scoop up sand and return cached samples to the rover.
- Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging): a remote sensing method for measuring distances using laser light. RAVEN will create computer-generated, 3D terrain models for engineers back on Earth to help decide where to send the rover.
- Hyperspectral imaging camera: this will allow RAVEN to see light in many wavelengths, which will make it easier to send the rover to the most interesting locations on the Martian surface.
Why is RAVEN important?
When NASA explores a previously unvisited object in the Solar System it approaches it in four stages: flyby, orbit, land and then rove. “With RAVEN, we’re adding “fly” to that list,” said Christopher Hamilton, an associate professor in the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, who oversees a team of 20 scientists and engineers involved in the RAVEN project.
“The whole concept is really geared towards building new technology and procedures for two robots to work together on an extraterrestrial body,” said Hamilton. “We are going to look at how a rover and a drone can work together to maximize the scientific output of such a mission.”
Why Martian rovers could use a drone assistant
However, one issue with Mars is how to navigate relatively young volcanic terrains because the surfaces are too rough for a rover to traverse. RAVEN will scout the best path forward—and will also collect and return remote samples from inaccessible sites.
“Volcanic terrains offer exciting targets for exploration because of their potential to generate habitable hydrothermal systems, which could support or preserve microbial life,” said Hamilton. “RAVEN would make such locations accessible for the first time.”
Why is RAVEN being tested in Iceland?
With volcanic terrains similar to those observed on Mars, a freshly-baked lava flow in Iceland’s Vatnajökull National Park will act as an Earth-analog.
RAVEN will explore the Holuhraun lava flow field, which was created by an eruption only five years ago so is devoid of vegetation or topsoil. NASA used it in preparing the Apollo astronauts for walking on the Moon.
“It’s some of the newest real estate in the world,” said Hamilton. “What makes it especially interesting to us is that the lava was emplaced in a sandy area, which is very similar to what some Martian terrains look like.”
The Martian night can get as cold as -130º Fahrenheit/-90º Celsius. The highlands in Iceland—home to Holuhraun—tend to be colder than 14°F/-10°C during the winter.
What is ‘Dragonfly?’
Once there, its two-year mission will be to explore Titan’s prebiotic chemistry.
A quadcopter/drone, Dragonfly will be able to fly away from its mothership every 16 days. Buoyancy will be no problem since Titan has a dense atmosphere, though checking the safety of each landing site will involve extensive recce flights.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.