Past, Present and Future Missions of Mars: Mars Helicopter Scout

By: Kyra Huber, Kailey Barnstable, Louis Zhao, and Jaskiran Dhami

Figure 1. Martian Rocks, Credit: NASA JPL

It is foreseeable for humans to travel to and colonize Mars because of how far technology and science have come. Through analyzing past missions, such as the Mars Curiosity Rover, future missions, such as the Mars Helicopter Scout, to the red planet can be simplified and allow for more exciting discoveries. The Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS) is a new NASA project set to launch alongside a rover in 2020. This helicopter will offer insight on the surface of Mars and provide aerial images of the surface, which can then be used to map the planet’s surface. By mapping the surface of Mars, the helicopter will provide geographical perspective and patterns of topography. The Curiosity rover is a past, successful mission that was launched with NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, for robot exploration of Mars. The goal of this mission is to provide insight into the habitability of Mars and whether life on Mars was/is possible. The Mars Insight Lander is a new mission launched to study Mars’ heat flow, seismology and interior structure. This mission is important in providing information of what lies beneath the surface of the red planet. Mars One is a future mission with the goal of establishing permanent colonization on Mars. Specific teams were chosen for this journey and will be trained to ensure such a mission.

By analyzing Mars missions, space teams are now able to prepare for future challenges that are associated with travelling to Mars. It is pivotal that we continue to launch missions in order to comprehend important details about logistics, physics, journey duration, atmosphere and safety in order to colonize Mars. Colonizing Mars is an exciting, popular topic; however, colonization is only possible if humans can safely travel to Mars. Although the many spacecrafts that have been deployed to Mars are not designed to carry people, they provide insight of the challenges we face with Mars’s atmosphere and the complications of traveling and landing on Mars. Through examining the Mars Helicopter Scout and other past and future missions, we are able to analyze how we gain knowledge regarding Mars, as we prepare for future Mars missions and, eventually, colonization.

Present Missions

Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS)

After four years of testing and planning, NASA has announced that they are launching a helicopter to Mars, along with the Mars Rover mission, in 2020.1

The aircraft has many notable, unique features: 

  • it only weighs 1.8 kilograms (near the maximum possible weight determined by NASA2– having more weight means that the rotors must spin faster, in order to generate more lift)
  • it has rotor blades of 1.1-meter diameter that circulate at 3000 rotations per minute (rpm), which is 10 times greater than a helicopter on Earth.3
  • it can charge its own batteries and keep itself warm with a self-induced heater.
  • it features two counter-rotating co-axial rotors, in order to cancel torque.2

The helicopter will travel to Mars on the belly pan of the Mars 2020 Rover. Before the mission begins, a series of tests will be performed to ensure the helicopter will operate as planned. Because Earth is several light minutes away, it could take up to 24 minutes to relay a message, which means NASA will not be able to control the helicopter instantly within landing.4 A command to the 2020 Rover that will relay the message to the helicopter to take flight.

Figure 2. Mars Helicopter Scout, Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The MHS will conduct up to one flight per sol (one Mars-day), with the rest of the day spent charging.3 It is interesting to note that there is a no-fly zone of 100 meters around the Mars 2020 rover, to ensure safety.2 Upon landing on Mars, the MHS is planned to undergo five test flights, with the first flight being a simple climb to only 10 feet in the air, with a 30 second hover.The four subsequent flights will continue to test the boundaries of the MHS, pushing closer to its maximal ranges.1 The MHS is able to transmit data to an interface box on the 2020 Rover, which can occur on the ground or in mid flight.2 The MHS uses solar cells to recharge its battery, and makes use of aerogel insulation and a heater to maintain interior warmth during the night.2

The biggest challenge the MHS face is achieving lift in an atmosphere that is only one percent that of Earth’s.2 Helicopters on Earth struggle to fly at 40,000 feet; attempting to fly the MHS in Mars’s atmosphere is comparable to flying at 100,000 feet on Earth.2 Rotor diameter is the first factor in addressing this problem. Increasing rotor diameter would enable more lift; however, space is limited, as it must fit on the belly of the 2020 Rover. Generating more revolutions per minute would also increase lift but comes at the cost of more power. More power can only come from increasing the size or efficiency of the solar cells2; however, doing so could increase the weight even more, further augmenting the problem. Potential ways of resolving these issues could come from enhancing rotor efficiency or cutting down on flight time.2

Other challenges the MHS faces include flying and landing in wind, dealing with wind on the ground, and creating accurate and to-scale models of Earth to Mars.2 The MHS is equipped with technology that allows it to withstand winds up to 45 m/s. Although it can withstand such strong winds, data from the 2020 Rover Meteorology Station will attempt to ensure flights do not occur during such undesirable conditions.2 As well, its legs are energy-absorbing, which allows for safe landing on the Martian terrain.2 The safe landing features on the MHS are vital; even something as minor as tipping over would result in mission failure, due to the MHS being unable to right itself. Additionally, because of weight constrictions, even something as meagre as a few grams can skew the entire design and configuration of the MHS.2 Furthermore, Mars presents several near-untestable situations for the MHS. The gravity on Mars is quite different than that of Earth’s, and there is minimal information on how these gravitation will affect flight on Mars. As well, it is extremely difficult to simulate these environments on earth. All these variables together makes it highly challenging to simulate and test for take-off, landing, and flight.2

The MHS will investigate the surface of Mars ahead of the 2020 Rover to help map safe paths for the rover, allowing the blindly driving rover to avoid treacherous terrain. One of the most important purposes of MHS is to provide high resolution images of Mars’ features, with a camera capable of capturing 3 centimeters per pixel.2 These images, which are then turned into three-dimensional terrain maps by NASA,3 will add to the topographical knowledge we have of Mars, and provide high-resolution aerial images of the surface. NASA can then view and examine these maps, identifying any hazards the 2020 Rover should avoid, and any other points of interest. The MHS’s flying and photographic abilities also allow it to directly access and photograph geological points of interest with relative ease, whereas a rover would either take much longer, or be unable to reach the area at all.

By launching the MHS mission, NASA has opened the door to future possibilities regarding Mars missions.  The information the Mars Helicopter offers will allow us to further explore the possibilities of life on other planets, potential future human colonization, and further our knowledge of Mars. This technology is revolutionary; it will provide us with knowledge in a new form, as we continue to map out the planet and prepare for colonization and more missions.

Past Missions

Numerous missions have been deployed to Mars. Each mission has had its own issues, which are important to study in order to help us plan for successful future missions.

Curiosity Rover

The Curiosity rover is a successful mission that was launched with NASA’s Mars Exploration Program for robot exploration of Mars. The goal of the this mission was to provide insight into the habitability of Mars.
Curiosity is able to: 

  • take clear pictures, examine terrain for life forms,
  • measure the amount of elements present in Martian soil
  • take basic readings of Mars’s atmospheric pressure and temperature.

The findings from the Curiosity rover have provided knowledge about the environment on Mars, which is taken into consideration when designing new space crafts, such as the MHS.

Figure 3. Curiosity Rover, Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Curiosity rover was designed to assess if Mars’s environment was able to sustain life as little as microbes. To do so, the Curiosity Rover is equipped with a Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument which is able to drill into rocks and collect fine powder, sieve it, and deliver it to the sample holder.5 The CheMin directs very fine X-ray beans through the power samples it collects. When the light interacts with the sample, some X-rays are absorbed by the atoms of the powder and are re-emitted at certain energies, diffraction paterns, and angles all  specific to the atoms the sample contains.  These are all directed to the rover’s detector, where the CheMin instrument is able to identify what minerals are present in the sample.

The Curiosity rover also has the ability to detect the ingredients needed to support microbial life: water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, which suggests that

Figure 4. Mars Ocean, Credit: NASA

life once may have been supported on Mars. As well, through this process of analyzing minerals present in the Martian soil, the CheMin instrument has concluded that Martian soil found in certain areas is similar to the basaltic soils of Hawaii’s volcanoes.6

The Curiosity rover carries a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium-238’s decay.7 The generated electricity can power the rover for a martian year (687 Earth days), which allows for longer exploration times and increased mobility.7 Curiosity also has a hand lens imager that allows it to take high definition, close up, detailed pictures of the surface of Mars, which has shown scientists that there is ancient streambeds where water used to lay on the planet.8 Figure 4 gives an idea of what Mars’s oceans used to look like. This could imply that Mars was once habitable, as water is one of most significant indicators of life.

Mars InSight Lander

The Mars InSight Lander is a new mission that was recently launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California on May 5, 2018 and is expected to land on Mars on November 26, 2018. The probe will begin a two year mission to: 

  • measure Mars’s heat flow
  • measure rate of tectonic activity and meteorite impact
  • measure amount of heat flow from the interior
  • study Mars’s interior structure, in order to study the evolution of the rocky planets in our solar system.

InSight will achieve this by using its seismometer and heat probe instruments that it is equipped with, as seen on the bottom left and right of figure 5.

The InSight Lander’s design is similar to the successful Mars Lander that was launched in 2007 that studied ice near Mars’s north pole.9 Studying past successful missions has helped scientists prepare for new missions, like the InSight Lander, as the 2007 Mars Lander technology was reused in the making of the InSight lander.  Although some data will be collected within the first week of landing, the main focus at this time is setting up InSight’s instruments on Mars’s surface. In the first weeks, the lander will begin stereo imaging the ground, within reach of its robotic arm. These images will provide three-dimensional information that will return to earth to allow the InSight team to determine the best locations for the seismometer (SEIS) and heat probe (HP3).

Figure 5. Mars Insight Lander, Credit: NASA/AFP

Once the location has been decided, the seismometer will be transferred to the Martian soil. The SEIS is a dome shape instrument that sits on the surface of Mars and measures “pulses”: seismic vibrations coming from Mars.10 The many sensors SIES is equipped with are wind, pressure, temperature, and magnetic field sensors. These are required to help accurize the SEIS’s measurements, and determine what is generating the surface seismic waves: weather (dust storms), commotion in the atmosphere (dust devils), pressure of the wind on Mars’s surface, landslides, marsquakes, or meteorite impact.8 The SEIS’s measurements on seismic waves can explain what material first formed the rocky planets in our solar system or may even reveal what is underneath Mars’s surface.  
Next, the heat probe (HP) will release its self-hammering mole and begins to sink into the Martian soil.  The HP3 measures the heat that is flowing from Mars’s interior and reveal what the source is and how much is escaping.11 The HP3 will sink 5 meters into Martian soil to ensure the changing seasons do not affect the measurements. It will stop every 50 centimeters to allow heat to subside and to measure thermal conductivity.11 At this time, the HP3 will emit a pulse of heat that the sensors will watch to examine how it changes with time. The pulse will decay quickly if the crust is made out of material that conducts heat well.11 But, if the crust is a poor conductor, the pulse will decay slowly.11 This measurement will reveal how the temperature increases with depth and how heat flows inside of Mars.

Many issues InSight would have faced have already been worked out with the Mars Lander, allowing InSight to run smoother.8 Similarly, the Curiosity rover has relayed important information and knowledge back to Earth about Martian soil, atmosphere, and radiation which is pivotal to scientists, as they prepare for future missions, like the MHS.

Future for Mars

Mars One

Colonizing Mars is a very popular topic, and scientists have been slowly working towards this ambitious endeavour.  Mars One is a future mission that will be launched in 2031 with the goal of establishing permanent colonization on Mars. Figure 6 shows Mars One’s current timeline for the future mission.12 The chosen teams will train for the Mars One mission by focusing on learning medical procedures, how to repair the habitat and rover, how to grow food, and learning how to cope in an isolated, distant location for extensive periods of time.

Figure 6. Proposed Timeline of the Mars One mission, Image Credit: Kailey Barnstable

Part of the Mars One mission will include activating the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), which extracts water from the soil by evaporating subsurface ice particles in an oven. This water will then be used to produce oxygen, while nitrogen and argon will be filtered from the atmosphere to make up the other components needed to make breathable air.12

Unfortunately, Mars One is currently struggling to get its footing, due to lack of funding and criticism regarding the realistics of its endeavours. Colonizing is a highly ambitious goal, which scientists hope to reach in the near future. However, much work is still needed in order to reach this goal by 2031. A great way to start working towards colonization is by studying past successful missions and continuing to launch missions, like the MHS, in order to further develop technology, our understanding of the planet and the complications Mars poses to us.


In order to safely colonize Mars, we must study previous missions and continue to launch new ones, like the MHS, in order to understand critical issues we face with journeying to Mars. The MHS is a revolutionary technological advance that will help us map and further understand the red planet. This technology may be used in the future to study other cosmological entities to further our understanding of the universe we live in.

Before we can successfully colonize Mars, we must continue our research and study of the planet to ensure maximal preparation and safety prior to deployment. Through examining the MHS and other past missions, we are able to analyze how we gain knowledge regarding Mars and prepare for future Mars missions. Studying past missions has already proven its significance in the discovery process. The 2007 Mars Lander was a major contributing factor in the launch of the 2018 Mars Insight Lander.9 Similarly, information gathered from the Curiosity rover about the habitability of Mars is important in preparing for future projects, like in the Mars One mission.

The first step to reaching Mars is studying past missions; we must understand their successes and failures in order to prepare ourselves for future missions and, eventually, colonization. It is pivotal that we continue to make new discoveries and launch new technologies  to further explore the possibilities of life on other planets, potential future human colonization, and further our knowledge of Mars. Studying past and future missions, like the MHS, allow us to analyze the way in which we gain knowledge about Mars, as we prepare for future projects and, eventually, colonization.


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3NASA, Mars Helicopter to Fly on NASA’s Next Red Planet Rover Mission, (Accessed June 4, 2018).

4Rocket Science (2012). Time Delay Between Mars and Earth. Retieved from (Accessed June 3, 2018).

5NASA, Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction (CheMin), Retrieved from (Accessed June 3, 2018).

6G. Webster, Mars Soil Sample Delivered for Analysis Inside Rover, (Accessed June 3, 2018).

7NASA, Curiosity Overview, (Accessed June 3, 2018).

8M. Wall, (2016) Top 5 Discoveries by Mars Rover (So Far), Retrieved from (Accessed June 3, 2018).

9T. Greicius, InSight Mars Lander: Mission Overview, Retrieved from (Accessed June 3, 2018).

10NASA. SEIS Overview: Measuring the Pulse of Mars. Retrieved from (Accessed June 3, 2018).

11NASA. HP3 Overview: Taking the Temperature of Mars. Retrieved from (Accessed June 3, 2018).

12Mars One, Mars One: Road Map, Retrieved from (Accessed June 3, 2018).