Is this the first Mars airplane?

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

NASA is developing a boomerang-shaped aircraft that may be the first vehicle of its kind to fly in the skies above Mars – a two-foot-long aircraft which would be light enough to travel up to 20 miles once it reaches the Red Planet, the US space agency has announced.

Earlier this week, NASA unveiled the prototype of what they call the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars (Prandtl-m), a flying-wing aircraft currently in development at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. Later this year, the vehicle is scheduled to undergo a test launch from a high-altitude balloon.

During the test flight, the Prandtl-m will be released from an altitude of approximately 100,000 feet. Al Bowers, NASA Armstrong chief scientist and Prandtl-m program manager, explained this will simulate the flight conditions of the Martian atmosphere. The tests will be used to validate the design and to find ways to modify it for use in future missions to the planet.

The plan is for the Prandtl-m to deploy from a 3U CubeSat in the aeroshell of a future Mars, the agency said. It would be ejected from the aeroshell, where it would deploy in the atmosphere of the Red Planet. The glider could theoretically be used to fly over and capture image maps of the proposed landing sites for a future manned mission.

Future missions in the works

According to Engadget, the vehicle weighs roughly 2.6 pounds on Earth, but the gravity on Mars will reduce its weight to just one pound. When the prototype takes its test flight later on this year, it will be carrying either the surveyor camera or equipment to study high-altitude radiation, and a second test flight set for next year will see it fly for up to five hours.

Bowers said that NASA has recruited “a number of summer community college students” to help design and build the aircraft used during the first testing phase. “We’re going to build some vehicles and we are going to put them in very unusual attitudes and see if they will recover where other aircraft would not. Our expectation is that they will recover. As soon as we get that information, we will feel much better flying it from a high-altitude balloon.”

While the first test flight will feature either the mapping camera or high-altitude radiometer, the agency said future missions may see it carry both of them at the same time. During the 2016 test flight, Bowers said the Prandtl-m would actually be inside a CubeSat container, which would be dropped by the balloon, allowing the aircraft to deploy and fly away.

A third mission, currently in the planning stages, would involve using a sounding rocket to take the aircraft to altitudes of up to 450,000 feet, then releasing it from a CubeSat at apogee, Bowers said. As it fell, it would deploy at around the 110,000-to-115,000-feet altitude range, and if that proves successful, Bowers “think[s] the project stands a very good chance of being able to go to NASA Headquarters and say we would like permission to ride to Mars with one of the rovers.”


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