NASA has had impressive success with the Ingenuity helicopter that’s been testing on the surface of Mars for weeks now. With the success of the Ingenuity helicopter, NASA engineers are already looking at concepts for larger and more capable rotorcraft that could be used for future missions.
NASA hopes to continue flying the Ingenuity helicopter and conducting more missions. Data the helicopter is collecting supports the planning stages for future helicopter designs by engineers at JPL, the Ames Research Center, and AeroVironment. NASA is already considering a larger flying vehicle called the Mars Science Helicopter.
It would be a six-rotor helicopter weighing about 30 kilograms. To compare, Ingenuity is much smaller at only 1.8 kilograms. With its additional mass, the Mars Science Helicopter could carry as much as five kilograms of science payload and fly up to 10 kilometers per mission. Currently, NASA is looking at science applications and what type of science would be enabled by adding the aerial dimension to a mission.
NASA says having flying capability would allow it to examine “special regions” of astrobiological interest without risking contamination. One mission that has been described could see a larger Mars helicopter visiting an outflow channel called Mawrth Vallis that is hard for rovers to access. It would collect samples at several locations and return them for analysis later.
One mystery is exactly how much it would cost to build the Mars Science Helicopter or when a flight opportunity for the helicopter might arise. The white paper describing the large Mars Science Helicopter also had a simpler helicopter design that would be a scaled-up version of Ingenuity. The team said that it has sufficiently low mass and volume and should be considered in all future launch opportunities to the surface of Mars.
However, NASA officials have confirmed that they aren’t considering the addition of the helicopter for the next lander mission. The next mission is the Sample Return Lander that is part of the Mars Sample Return program currently scheduled for launch no earlier than 2026.