Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) made history in April 2021 by flying the first helicopter on Mars. Though the plane didn’t look exactly like standard drones, the 39.1 seconds flight illustrated the potential for drone flights to space.
“But, can a drone fly to space?” You ask. Get your drone ready and let’s explore the possibilities.
Drones cannot fly to space without assistance or modifications. However, drones can fly in space but with customization to withstand low atmospheric pressure and weak gravity. Even so, standard drones can fly up to the point of reaching the clouds, though it’s very unsafe.
This article discusses at length why drones can or cannot fly in space. Stick to the end as there is more.
Table of contents
Can a Drone Fly to Space?
A modified or assisted drone can fly to space. Those who have flown a drone to space have used a weather balloon to lift the drone to flying height. Moreover, the pilots had to add modified communication equipment to effectively control the drone.
There are several reasons why a standard drone cannot fly to space independently. First, a drone flies by pushing down air as its propellers spin. For the propellers to effectively lift the drone, there must be enough air in the atmosphere.
But as you move up the Earth’s atmosphere, the air becomes thinner and the pressure drops. The drone has to spin the propellers faster to keep up or lose the ability to support its weight. That’s why NASA is working on a different propulsion system for the drones meant to fly to space.
Secondly, your drone runs on temperature-sensitive Lithium polymer batteries. As you go higher into the Earth’s atmosphere, the temperature drops to levels unfavorable for the batteries.
So ideally, your drone batteries will probably die if you fly past the Earth’s atmosphere and into space.
Thirdly, your drone’s controls have a limit on communication distance. For drones with LTE-enabled transmitters and big antennas, the range is slightly above 5 miles.
This range varies greatly with weather conditions and other disruptors like electromagnetic fields along the communication path.
Finally, an average drone will not have enough battery power to fly to space independently. High-end drones can have battery power to sustain slightly above 30 minutes of flight. If coupled with a long-range transmitter, such a drone can fly between 3 and 7.4 miles.
Possibly future space drones will have sustainable energy options like solar energy.
Can a Drone Fly in Space?
Drones cannot fly in space without modifications to the power source and propulsion mechanism. Drones work awesomely on Earth as there is electricity to power them and enough air to lift their weight. But things are different in space.
For a start, there is no air in space. And since the propulsion mechanism in drones is fully air dependent, it will be utterly useless in space.
Luckily, NASA is working on other propulsion mechanisms that could work in vacuums. Future space drones will possibly be powered by propulsion systems under testing like gas or water vapor.
In addition, the temperature in outer space is about 2.7 kelvins (−270.45 °C; −454.81 °F). Considering the lithium batteries that power standard drones can only work between -20 and +60 Celsius, you’ll need a different or modified power source.
NASA had to include heaters in the battery compartment of the helicopter they flew on Mars to keep the batteries at operating temperature.
Can Drones Reach Clouds?
Standard drones can reach the clouds. Height restrictions aside, drones can easily surpass the clouds, which generally start forming at 6,500 ft.
For instance, DJI Mini 2 drone has a maximum flight height of 14,763 feet above the ground. In fact, some enthusiastic YouTuber flew his drone to a height of 33,000 feet.
However, it’s probably a bad idea to fly your drones to the level of or above the clouds. You’ll be breaking drone height regulations and putting the drone at risk of damage.
The areas within the clouds and above it have low temperatures and high humidity, a bad combination for the electronics within the drone.
In addition, the ground sensors located on the bottom side of the drone may confuse the clouds with the ground. If it happens, you’ll likely lose control of your drone, or the flight becomes too challenging to control.
Can You Fly a Drone on the Moon?
Yes, you can fly a drone on the moon. But the drone needs equipment capable of handling the gravity and environmental conditions of the moon. And unlike the Earth, the moon has lower gravity and has no air.
The low gravity is advantageous as less power is needed to maintain a hover, but the lack of air complicates the whole system.
Researchers haven’t shied away from the challenge, though, with NASA being at the forefront. There is already a concept drone named Arne that could use a propulsion system based on lithium hydroxide and peroxide.
Moreover, flying a drone on the moon comes with the challenge of controls. Given the distance and prevailing conditions on the moon’s surface, a robust communication system could take several minutes to send commands.
Therefore, the drone could better work with pre-programmed instructions rather than being controlled from the Earth’s surface.
Can a Drone Operate on Mars?
A drone can operate on Mars, and NASA has already had a successful demonstration.
However, running a drone on Mars presents very different challenges from flying on Earth.
The standard propulsion system needs modification to handle the low Martian gravity and the much lower dense atmosphere.
While the low gravity requires small propellers to maintain a hover, the tenuously dense atmosphere demands more power.
NASA created a very ingenious solution to the problem in their test helicopter. They made the propellers larger and increased the rotation speeds to balance pressure variation on the top and bottom of the craft.
Another challenge drone operations on Mars would face is low night temperatures.
Since lithium batteries operate at temperatures above the Martian night temperatures, you’ll need to install heaters as NASA did. Otherwise, you’ll need different battery types or power sources.
Finally, you need a way to charge the batteries. Don’t be quick to propose solar panels, as Mars receives less than half of the solar energy received on Earth.
Though NASA charged their helicopter using solar, it will take longer to charge batteries enough to operate a drone on Mars fully.
How High Can a Drone Fly? Read More
Military drones can fly as high as 10 kilometers or 33,000 feet above the ground. And as this YouTuber demonstrated, standard drones can achieve the same height, though it’s against the law in many countries.
The physical flight height limitation for drones emanates from the flight difficulties the drone faces as the air becomes thinner and the temperature decreases.
Technically, the higher the drone goes, the more power it needs to support its weight.
The propellers spin faster to maintain air thrust, and their effort becomes almost fruitless past 10 kilometers above the ground.
Moreover, the temperatures at that height will be below the battery’s optimal operating temperatures. Besides, the distance is already past the maximum terminal control distance.
Can Drones Fly in Vacuum?
Drones cannot fly in a vacuum. Drones fall under the same category as helicopters, birds, and insects that rely on displacing air downwards to support weight in the air.
Hence, since a vacuum has no atmosphere, neither your drone nor birds can fly in there.
Why Is It Harder to Fly a Drone on Mars?
It is hard to fly a drone on Mars because of low gravity, low-density atmosphere, and power problems. The three challenges affect the drone’s propeller and battery systems.
For propellers to work effectively, they need to push enough air to maintain thrust to lift the craft’s weight. In places like Mars, where gravity is a third of the Earth’s, you need less power to create enough thrust.
However, the lower atmosphere presents a different challenge.
You’ll have to push more air despite the low density to create enough upward and downward thrust. Technically, you’ll need to increase the rotors’ size, their number, or spinning speed—or have a combination.
Once you’re past propulsion challenges, get into power issues. There is no electricity on the Red Planet, and thus you have to get creative with solar energy.
However, Mars receives slightly lower than half the amount of solar energy received on Earth.
How Many Drones Have We Sent to Mars?
We have sent one NASA-made and operated drone to Mars, named Ingenuity. The drone landed on Mars’ Jezero Crater on February 18th, 2021, after launching from Florida on July 30th, 2020. By February 25th, 2022, the Ingenuity was flying over the Red Planet for the twentieth time.
Since the Ingenuity, NASA and other space exploration organizations are deep in research to develop better drones to fly on Mars.
What Is The Longest Flying Drone?
The most extended flying battery-powered drones are DJI Mavic Air 2 and senseFly eBeeX.
The DJI Mavic Air 2 tops the consumer category of drones with 34 minutes of flight time, while the senseFly eBeeX tops the enterprise category with 90 minutes.
But the solar-powered Zephyr S is the most extended flying drone, with a continuous flight time of 623 hours and 57 minutes.
However, these flight times will change depending on the pilot’s experience, the weather during the flight, and the drone’s physical condition.
How Long will you Take To Get To Mars?
A rocket traveling at 24,600 mph takes about seven months to cover the 300 million miles to Mars. But the actual travel time will change depending on whether engineers change the rocket’s flight path and speed to ensure a safe landing on Jezero Crater on Mars.
The overall travel time to and from Mars takes 21 months. The rocket takes around nine months for a one-way trip and a waiting time of three months for the two planets to align before setting a cruise to Earth.
Why Are Drones Needed In Space?
Drones are needed in space to observe and survey areas. Scientists use drones to complement rovers and other observatory equipment to collect space data.
Though only one drone has been sent to Mars, more research is underway to create better crafts for space exploration.
The advantage of using drones is they are cheaper than sending people and have better potential to fly over places the rovers can’t access.
Are There Drones That Can Fly in Space?
Under the standard drone definition, there are no drones that can fly in space. But if the description expands to “unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV),” then the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle fits the bill.
The Boeing-designed craft takes after NASA’s now-retired space shuttle, though at a miniature scale. Once launched, the X-37B conducts crewless missions in space and re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere as a space plane.
The regular mission of this craft and other similar UAVs is to deliver cargo to and from International Space Stations.
Drones have been developing rapidly into powerful equipment with many applications on Earth. And with NASA having set the pace with the Ingenuity drone on Mars, there is a bright future for drones flying to space. Once achieved, drones to space will be the gateway to better observing and understanding the universe.
What a time it will be if even enthusiasts could fly their drones into space and back to Earth safely. It will take the drone game to a whole new level, assuming the regulations will allow flying to space.