What Are NASA’s Plans For Exploring Mars?

NASA has been able to explore the surface of Mars for 20 years now, after the Spirit rover landed on the Red Planet. As the years have progressed, NASA has continued its exploration, utilizing two rovers and five orbiters to collect as much data as possible.

NASA Researching Bigger Helicopter For More-Detailed Exploration Of Mars

NASA currently uses the Mars helicopter known as Ingenuity to capture images and data on the Red Planet. Now, the agency has announced that they are quietly researching a bigger and better helicopter to navigate through Mars’s rough terrain. Teddy Tzanetos, a NASA robotics technologist, discussed the new spacecraft in a recent interview:

“We’re trying to look at building on the success of Ingenuity, and what we could accomplish with a larger, more capable aircraft to Mars in terms of the science we could do and the distances we could go.”

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The new aircraft is set to be a larger version of Ingenuity, which has two rotors while the new version is equipped with a much larger helicopter that contains six rotors. NASA is continuously studying the limits of Ingenuity in terms of its speed and distance. 

A larger helicopter could be beneficial due to the fact that it could carry more equipment to analyze the composition of Mars. 

The research paper on the new aircraft lists three possible destinations: “Mawrth Vallis, a valley in which NASA has detected evidence of water movement in the past; Milankovič Crater, which could harbor large water ice deposits, and Lucus Planum, a relatively flat area around which some researchers believe a helicopter could help determine when Mars lost its magnetic field and also survey volcanic flows.”

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NASA is planning on sending another aircraft to Mars in 2026 to collect rock samples that are currently being drilled by the Perseverance rover. The next time Mars will be close enough to Earth for a rocket launch will be December 2022. 

“Many people who study Mars exploration say waiting much longer than that would be a shame. I think they would be very foolish to stall it that long. I think a few years from now, people will ask why are you sending something to Mars that can’t fly, since we know it’s possible now,” said Robert Zubrin, president of the non-profit Mars Society, which advocates for exploration of the Red Planet.

NASA also recently announced that Ingenuity has so far provided valuable tools that engineers can use to navigate where to send Perseverance. Zubrin believes that NASA should specifically sent an aircraft through the Valles Marineris, the largest known canyon in the solar system.

“The Valles Marineris has a lot of deposits that were probably ancient lakes on the bottom. A helicopter could explore the walls of the canyon vertically and laterally. That would serve science and build public fascination. I think this opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities. You’d want to go to exciting places geologically that you couldn’t get to with the rovers, which is a lot of terrain,” said Ray Arvidson, a professor of Earth and Planetary Services.