We Need Better Mars Photos Before We Leave Earth

Researches sample stones on a simulated Mars mission in Austria, August 7, 2015. European astronomers are proposing a drone mission to gather images of the Martian landscape. Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters

A team of European astronomers has a new proposal for exploring Mars: a helicopter drone.

Efforts to survey the Martian landscape have delivered some pretty stunning results. Just last week, the U.S. Geological Survey published three maps and accompanying images showing geological formations that, researchers say, could only be the result of abundant water. But the Curiosity rover can't take aerial images and its drill broke last December (although it did recently scoop up a handful of sand for analysis).

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The astronomers' drone plan, published recently in Acta Astronautica, is to send a "small Mars system" that includes both a dust analyzer and a drone to the Red Planet. The drone would fly at a low altitude around the Martian globe, snapping pics of the entire surface.

The technology hinges on IRENE, an umbrella-like heat shield developed by the Italian Space Agency. Theoretically the shield will enable the drone to pass through the upper atmospheres of the foreign planet on its way down. The astronomers behind the drone-dust analyzer combo note its small size and low cost as potential advantages compared to other missions to Mars now in development.

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Meanwhile, studies investigating the basic necessities for a future human colony on Mars continue. Crowdfunders can support a campaign to fund research about what plants can be safely grown on Mars. That work is led by Dutch biologist Wieger Wamelink, who bears a strangely close resemblance to The Martian actor Matt Damon, as evident in this video posted on Wamelink's Facebook page dedicated to research about growing food on Mars and the moon. Earlier this month, SpaceX, Elon Musk's rocket and spacecraft company, test-fired one of its Falcon Heavy engines, the kind that Musk intends to use for human missions to Mars, followed by colonization within the next 50 to 100 years. And Mars One, a company dedicated to establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars, was recently valued at nearly $400 million by an independent Swiss auditor.

For the near future, though, we must be content with images and samples. This European helicopter drone, while still in the early stages, could bring the best ones yet.