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This Boomerang-Shaped Aircraft Could be the First to Fly on Mars

The lightweight glider would search for potential landing spots to be used by a future manned mission to Mars

An artist’s illustration of the Prandtl-m flying above the surface of Mars (NASA Illustration / Dennis Calaba)
smithsonian.com

Scientists are feeling confident about their ability create vehicles that crawl across the surface of the Red Planet — so much so that a plan is in the works to create a craft that will fly in Martian skies. The aircraft is a boomerang-shaped glider currently called the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars, or Prandtl-m.

Daniel Culpan describes the craft for Wired:

The sleek spacecraft, which is shaped like a space-age boomerang, has a two-foot wingspan and weighs around 1.17kg when Earthbound -- though Mars's gravitational forces will slim it down to just 453g. It will be made from either fiberglass or carbon fibre and will be able to reach speeds of up to 20mph after gliding from more than 600 meters [or just over one third of a mile] above the planet's surface.

The purpose of the glider is to cruise around the surface of the Red Planet to search out potential landing sites for a future manned mission to Mars.

NASA plans to get the boomerang-shaped glider to Mars by folding in into a miniature satellite, called a 3U CubeSat, tucked into the aeroshell of a future Mars rover. "The aircraft would be part of the ballast that would be ejected from the aeroshell that takes the Mars rover to the planet," says Al Bowers in a NASA press release by Jay Levine. Bowers is the Prandtl-m program manager and a chief scientist at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. "It would be able to deploy and fly in the Martian atmosphere and glide down and land. The Prandtl-m could overfly some of the proposed landing sites for a future astronaut mission and send back to Earth very detailed high resolution photographic map images that could tell scientists about the suitability of those landing sites," Bowers says.

But first, the glider is being tested on Earth. One such test will involve flying the aircraft from a high-altitude balloon at 100,000 feet in the air. At that altitude, the air is thin enough to simulate the Martian atmosphere. If the aircraft passes that test, scheduled for later this year, another balloon will carry it up to 450,000 feet, reports Loren Grush for The Verge

The Prandtl-m will sport a wingspan of just 24 inches and weigh less than a pound on Mars, which has gravity 38 percent of that on Earth. The success of these initial tests on Earth will determine whether NASA Headquarters approves the piggy-back ride to Mars along with the next rover sometime in the 2020s. 

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