NASA's proposal for a small helicopter to help explore the surface of Mars has won backing from an important congressional panel.
The U.S. House of Representatives' Appropriations Committee has approved a fiscal 2017 appropriations bill that covers the space agency's spending, including $408 million to launch a new rover in 2020 to explore the Red Planet. That interplanetary mission is intended "to address key questions about the potential for life on Mars" and "provide opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars."
The small helicopter would be among the technologies demonstrated. The House bill would give NASA $15 million for a helicopter technology demonstration to be flown on the Mars 2020 mission.
Martian rovers' vision is limited to the view of their onboard cameras and images from orbiting spacecraft. Once a new rover is on the planet's surface, a paired helicopter could fly out ahead of it to scout out routes and prospective exploration sites. NASA officials believe data from a scout helicopter could allow a rover to cover three times more territory in a Martian day (which is just a bit longer than a day on Earth).
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, already has tested a proof-of-concept design. NASA envisions the Martian helicopter as weighing 2.2 lb (1 kg) and having a 3.6 ft (1.1 m) wide rotor.
Photo courtesy of NASA