Scientists have sent rovers to trundle across Martian land, and they have launched satellites to orbit the Martian atmosphere. But what about the skies in the middle? In order to study this in-between realm, NASA has created a prototype aircraft to soar through the Martian skies. NASA's aspiration is to have the airplane launch from a high-altitude balloon over the Red Planet in the 2020s.
This prototype plane is shaped like a boomerang, but there's no chance of it coming back to Earth. This is strictly a one-way trip.
The plane will be tested later this year, launched into the skies from a balloon roughly 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) up. The atmosphere is less thick at this height and mimics the density of Mars' atmosphere where the plane, called Prandtl-m, will need to take off.
This intrepid plane could be essential for future missions to Mars as it's perfect for scouting out optimum craft-landing spots. "The aircraft would be part of the ballast that would be ejected from the aeroshell that takes the Mars rover to the planet," Al Bowers, Prandtl-m program manager, said. "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."
The proposed Prandtl-m coming into land. NASA/Ken Ulbrich
The tiny airplane is designed to be so light that it could happily piggyback on a Mars rover, meaning they could travel from Earth to Mars together. The weight of the airplane is so small – just one pound – that it wouldn't add to the cost of a rover mission. This makes it a valuable and versatile add-on for many missions to Mars, and maybe even other planets. In order to help Prandtl-m survive ejection from the rover backpack as it enters Mars' atmosphere, the final aircraft will be made from robust but light materials: fiberglass or carbon fiber.
The projected flight plan would be for Prandtl-m to glide over the surface of Mars after it's been ejected, staying airborne for about 10 minutes. The plane would have a flight range of roughly 32 kilometers (20 miles).