The Mars Helicopter and Lessons for SATCOM Testing

NASA engineers dreamed up an ingenious solution to this problem: pair the rover with a flying scout that can peer over the terrain. Once per day, an owl-sized helicopter will take flight and photograph the nearby area, sending imagery back to the rover to aid with the route planning. NASA expects these route optimizations to triple the distance the rover is able to cover each day, increasing the vehicle’s opportunity for important discoveries. But, this innovative plan is fraught with risks and challenges. NASA has never flown a helicopter on Mars, where the atmosphere is a small fraction of the Earth’s air density.Maintaining a communication channel between the rover and the scout is also difficult. An Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) radio link is the lifeline for imagery, command and control, and relay back to Earth. If this RF link fails, the consequences could be dire: the scout could collide with the rover, fly out of range, or crash and end its usefulness to the mission.Failure is not an option for this $2 billion mission, so the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is minimizing the risk by running an interesting battery of tests on their RF equipment.

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