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UArizona working to help drones explore Mars

Posted at 7:44 PM, Jan 15, 2021

TUCSON, AZ — The University of Arizona is a leader in exploring the planets. Now, a UA research team has a three million dollar grant from NASA to help Mars rovers learn more about the Red Planet by adding a flying drone---and they are making their test flights in Iceland.

Rovers have taught us a lot about Mars but it can take a long time for them to get anywhere. When the latest rover, called Perseverance, gets to Mars next month, it will bring a small helicopter to cover more ground, more quickly. But that drone is limited. Its main job is just to prove flying a drone there is possible.

Now University of Arizona researchers are working in Iceland to develop drones able to go to Mars and do much more. Researcher Chris Hamilton sees the potential for a drone to be a flying lab assistant able to fly far ahead of the rover and bring samples back to analyze.

“So, in this instance, you have a very effective science laboratory. You want to be able to maximize the time that rover is using the instruments and so by fetching samples the drone can open a whole new paradigm as well.”

Hamilton is in Iceland now. He says it’s a great stand-in for Mars because, like Mars, volcanoes and lava flows formed a lot of the terrain. He says on Iceland there are areas where volcanic heat melts ice and creates warm, wet zones where life can flourish.

Hamilton says similar areas on Mars could show signs of ancient or even current life but they are too rough for a rover on wheels.

“But if you have a rover that can get a UV unmanned aerial vehicle close to a lava flow and it can fly out and do the surveys, you might find evidence of hydrothermal activity and completely unexpected areas where life would have a potential to make use of this unique environment.”

The goal is to have a drone able to lift as much as 20 pounds. That will mean adapting designs to get a grip on the thin Martian atmosphere. But what the UA team learns in Iceland could be built into the next mission to Mars.