How NASA Drone Tech Is Changing Space Missions

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We’ve started to use drone technology in a wide variety of industries here on Earth, so it’s no surprise that NASA has started to take them into space. They recently launched the first drone flight on Mars, and are exploring a wide range of possibilities for unmanned aircraft travel in the future. As drones become more advanced, they can take us to completely new frontiers in the solar system and even search for new signs of life.

What Are The Benefits Of A NASA Drone In Space?

Using drones is an excellent way to enhance any space exploration mission. One of the biggest advantages of using drones in space is that they can go places that humans may not be able to. Because of their small size and aerodynamic construction, they can fit into tight places or fly to heights that wouldn’t be safe for astronauts. They can also be designed to withstand different atmospheric conditions.

This means that we will no longer need to use humans to physically explore new places. Instead, astronauts can learn to man the drone from a safe place and collect data. This gives us the potential to explore so many new places and potentially even find new life. Many people have also suggested that space tourism will become a reality in the decades to come. Before we begin offering space tourism, we can use drones to determine which planets or moons are safe to visit.

High-tech drones can also help us gather important data about space more efficiently. Drone technology is constantly evolving, and we can equip them with sensors to help us learn more about the conditions of foreign planets in real time. Another huge advantage of using drones in space is their ability to capture high-quality photos and videos. Not only would these images be visually stunning, but they could also give us the first look at places that have never been seen with human eyes before.

Drones are incredibly versatile, which makes them ideal for space exploration moving forward. They can be adapted and programmed to perform new tasks, which means they can be customized to meet the challenges of each new planet they visit. Drones have gotten larger and more accurate over time, so we can only assume they will get even more powerful in the future.

So far, NASA appears to be the only organization that has developed drones that work in space. Many other countries, notably Russia and China, have experimented with high-altitude military drones. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more drones in space in the decades to come as the rest of the world learns more about this technology.

Can We Send Consumer Drones Directly To Space?

NASA has developed a drone that can fly on Mars after it’s been transported there. It’s likely that they will expand on this technology with drones that work on other planets. However, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a drone fly directly from Earth all the way to space without an intermediary form of transportation.

Some advanced consumer drones can reach very high altitudes. However, most drones come with built-in security restrictions that prevent them from flying above a certain height. This is so they don’t interfere with larger commercial and military aircraft. Additionally, drones cannot comfortably fly past a certain altitude because of changes in air density. The further away you get from Earth’s surface, the thinner the air gets. This means that a drone’s propellers don’t have as much air to push against, making it difficult for them to fly.

Additionally, temperatures in the outer layers of space are not suitable for most commercial drones. Higher altitudes can be extremely cold, so batteries can stop working. Most drones can only communicate with their controller within a limited range, so they will eventually lose their ability to navigate if they go too high. 

NASA’s Drone Helicopters On Mars

NASA's drone helicopter on Mars, "Ingenuity"
Courtesy of Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingenuity_(helicopter))

NASA has been developing unmanned aircraft to use in space for several years now. However, it was only in April 2021 that they successfully used the first unmanned helicopter on Mars. Prior to this mission, NASA was unsure if we would ever be able to fly aircraft successfully on Mars. The planet has much different atmospheric conditions from Earth, which is what made this so challenging. Despite lower gravity on Mars, the air there is very thin, which means that the flight technology we use here on Earth is much less effective.

Additionally, NASA had to design a drone that was completely autonomous and could maneuver on its own using a built-in navigation system. This is because the distance between Earth and Mars is too far to send reliable remote control navigation signals. This created another unique challenge that made it tricky to develop an effective drone.

This drone is called Ingenuity, and it was brought to space as part of the Perseverance rover. This rover has been on Mars since February, but this was the first time that NASA launched the drone. Now that we know the drone can fly successfully, NASA will likely continue to use it for longer missions.

The Ingenuity drone had been in development for years and was actually a collaboration between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Qualcomm Technologies. Working with a private company enabled NASA to develop the drone more quickly and leverage exciting new flight technologies.

This first flight lasted less than a minute, but the drone was able to transmit images and data back to a team of engineers on Earth while it was in flight. It traveled approximately three meters and managed to hover and turn while in the air. This helicopter contains an antenna with a solar panel on top of very light rotor blades. These blades have to turn at extremely fast speeds in order to get off the ground. On the bottom of the drone are its batteries and sensors as well as its ground-facing camera, which captures images in black and white. The drone is also equipped with a higher-resolution camera on the top.

Now that NASA has developed technology that is capable of flying on Mars, they can expand on this technology for more complex forms of drone exploration. They have already indicated some interest in developing larger versions for future Mars missions, as well as drones for trips to other planets.

Future NASA Drone Projects

While Ingenuity may have been the first drone to land on Mars, it certainly won’t be the last. NASA announced in 2019 that they are developing a drone to send to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. This drone will launch from Earth in 2026 and will land on Titan in 2034. This drone will be called the Dragonfly, and it should stay on Titan for approximately two and a half years.

The atmosphere on Titan is much thicker than the atmosphere on Mars. This means that it won’t be nearly as difficult to develop a drone that can fly in these conditions. Titan is Saturn’s largest moon, and it has very unique features that make it particularly interesting to NASA scientists. Specifically, it is the only body in the solar system that we know of that supports stable bodies of liquid. Instead of water, Titan has liquids made up of hydrocarbons. Because of the presence of liquid, this moon has some weather patterns that are similar to Earth, including rain storms. It also features massive dunes and even an ocean of water buried under the moon’s crust.

Because of Titan’s liquid bodies as well as the thicker atmosphere on this planet, there are scientists that believe it could support life. While Dragonfly is on Titan, it will fly all over the moon, documenting its unique chemical makeup and geological features. This drone could also conceivably find signs of life during this mission. Since Titan has so many similarities with Earth, scientists think it could also give us clues about how our own planet developed.

This drone isn’t the first probe to visit Titan. However, it will be the first multi-rotor vehicle to fly there or on any other planet besides Earth. NASA’s scientists have already spent years planning this complex mission, which will consist of a series of short flights. During this time, Dragonfly will collect valuable samples from various points of interest on Titan and will eventually transmit information back to Earth.

Final Thoughts

NASA Drone and Vehicle Concept Art

NASA’s drone missions are completely changing the way we explore space. Unmanned autonomous vehicles give us the ability to learn so much about other planets and could eventually pave the way for humans to make their way further into space. While NASA has used unmanned rovers in the past to collect information, the development of flying drones takes the program into new territory.

Jeremiah Burnett

What started as a gift for my two sons turned into a major hobby for me! After playing with my sons' quadcopter one winter afternoon, I quickly became obsessed with all things drone. I enjoy precision flying, creating stunning and smooth aerial videos, and taking beautiful photos of my hometown.


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