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7/9/2015 | 2 MINUTE READ

NASA’s Mars airplane will be made with composites

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The aircraft will have a range of about 20 miles.

NASA is currently working on the aircraft that will make its first flight on Mars in the 2020s. A prototype of the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars, or Prandtl-m, which is a flying wing aircraft with a twist (think boomerang on a large scale), is being prepared for a launch from a high altitude balloon later this year. The Prandtl–m will be released at about at 100,000 feet altitude, which will simulate the flight conditions of the Martian atmosphere, according to Al Bowers, NASA Armstrong chief scientist and Prandtl-m program manager.

"The actual aircraft's wingspan when it is deployed would measure 24 inches and weigh less than a pound," Bowers said. "With Mars gravity 38 percent of what it is on Earth, that actually allows us up to 2.6 pounds and the vehicle will still weigh only 1 pound on Mars.”

Bowers said that it will be made of composite material, either fiberglass or carbon fiber. “We believe this particular design could best recover from the unusual conditions of an ejection,” he said.

The tests could validate how the aircraft works, leading to modifications that will allow it to fold and deploy from a 3U CubeSat in the aeroshell of a future Mars rover. A CubeSat is a miniature satellite used for space research that is usually about four inches in each dimension, a 3U is three of those stacked together.

"The aircraft would be part of the ballast that would be ejected from the aeroshell that takes the Mars rover to the planet," Bowers 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."

Once in the Martian atmosphere, the Prandtl-m would emerge from its host, deploy and begin its mission.

"It would have a flight time of right around 10 minutes. The aircraft would be gliding for the last 2,000 feet to the surface of Mars and have a range of about 20 miles," Bowers said.

Before that happens, a configuration will be developed for the first of three tests here on Earth. NASA is bringing in college students to help design and build the aircraft that will complete the first phase of the mission. 

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