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Someday A Helicopter Drone May Fly Over Mars And Help A Rover

Is there ever a time when cool trumps science?

It's a question that becomes relevant when you consider NASA's plans to put a helicopter drone on an upcoming rover mission to Mars.

Think about it. If you tell a friend that NASA's Mars 2020 mission will have an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer on board for determining the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials, you'll probably be greeted with a blank look.

Tell that friend the mission will be carrying a helicopter drone that will fly over the rover and take aerial photos, and the response is more likely, "Wow, that's cool."

Well, that was my reaction, anyway.

Now you might be thinking, wait a minute, there's not a lot of atmosphere on Mars, so is there enough air for a helicopter's rotors to push against?

NASA scientist Matthew Golombek says yes, the atmosphere on Mars is pretty thin. "But there is enough atmosphere to actually do stuff with wings or rotors," he says.

He says tests in a chamber that simulates the Martian atmosphere have proven that.

Golombek works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. As a serious scientist, his first reason for wanting a helicopter drone on a Mars rover mission isn't poetic or cool, it's scientific.

"The rover spends a fair amount of time wandering around looking for the good stuff to go analyze," Golombek says. "The idea for the helicopter is if you could get that beforehand, then the rover wouldn't need to wander around, it would know exactly where to go. Where are the best out-crops. Where are the key relations that you want to study."

The helicopter drone Golombek wants to send to Mars is a pretty simple affair. It has two, 3-foot-long rotor blades that rotate in opposite direction for stability. Below the rotors are a couple of boxes that hold the drone's electronics. There's also a solar panel for charging the drone's batteries.

"Mounted on the outside of this is a small camera that takes pictures," Golombek says, "and that's it."

The whole thing weighs just a bit more than 2 pounds. And to keep costs down, Golombek says NASA has tried to use off-the-shelf parts. For example, a GoPro camera right out of the box. Tests show that will work on Mars.

Even though Golombek is a serious scientist, that doesn't mean he's immune to a kind of magical feeling that comes from working on the team that's running Opportunity, a rover that's been roaming Mars for almost 12 years.

"We have a presence on Mars, a continuous presence on Mars, with a bunch of people that are Martians. I'm a Martian," Golombek says with a laugh. "Maybe not me personally, but my brain is there with the rover."

He says pictures from a helicopter flying above a rover rolling across Mars will only reinforce that feeling of being there. "In a sense that's humanity being on another plant," he says. "First small step."

It may be a while before we can take that first small step. For now at least cool didn't trump science. NASA chose other scientific instrument for the 2020 mission, in part because the agency wanted to make sure the drone would work as advertised. It still may get there on a future mission.

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Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.