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Another helicopter mission under development for Mars?

Another helicopter mission for Mars?
Click for original image.

Today’s cool image to the right, cropped to post here, is probably on its own one of the more boring cool images I have posted over the years, a generally featureless plain with some ripple dunes within a few low hollows.

What makes this picture cool however is the label for the image: “Sample Landing and Traverse Hazards at Possible Helicopter Landing Site.” The picture was taken on January 23, 2024 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), with the obvious goal of seeing whether this location can serve as a landing site for a helicopter mission to Mars.

The site is relatively uninteresting because the first goal is to find a safe place to land, but to do so near a location where there is rough geology which only a helicopter can explore. And it appears, from the overview map below, that is exactly what this location is.

Overview map

The red dot on the overview map to the right marks the location, inside 108-mile-wide Terby Crater, located on the northern interior slopes of Hellas Basin, the Death Valley of Mars. Terby Crater has long been a focus of research because of the deep gullies and mesas that seem to flow down from its northern rim. See for example this December 2020 cool image, where I quote a 2006 paper [pdf] that attempted to summarize what is known about this drainage region, and the processes that formed it over eons.

We suggest that the flow and possible melting of thick ice deposits could have formed the large troughs in Terby. The involvement of ice by glacial scour or dissolution is consistent given the scale and geomorphology of the features and the evidence for the past and present involvement of glaciers on Mars.

Putting a helicopter in Terby so that it can then fly and explore these gullies and mesas seems a very good idea. The helicopter would also be well placed to fly down into Hellas Basin, where because of the low elevation the atmosphere is thicker and thus flying is easier. Depending on its design and sophistication, the helicopter might even be able to reach the strange taffy terrain found in the lowest regions of Hellas.

This mission is certainly not approved. It likely is only in a very preliminary design phase, and possibly no more than a thought by one scientist, who then requested this picture from MRO. It is also not the only helicopter mission to Mars now being considered. NASA has proposed using two helicopters in its Mars Sample Return mission, and earlier MRO images suggested that scientists are also considering a helicopter mission into Valles Marineris, with others proposing flying a glider mission to another part of that giant canyon. In addition, both Europe and India have proposed their own Mars helicopter missions.

Ingenuity’s success in Jezero Crater has proven this technology. It now appears that scientists and engineers worldwide of gearing up to use it to explore the Red Planet, and to do so in ways no rover ever could.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


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