In case you haven’t noticed, NASA is dead-set on putting a man on Mars. A manned mission to the Red Planet is easier said than done though, and apparently, studying the atmospheric and geological conditions of Mars isn’t enough. An aerial survey of the planet is necessary before NASA feels comfortable sending a manned mission there, so the agency has recently unveiled plans to send an aircraft to Mars in hopes of scoping out possible landing sites for a future human missions.
The aircraft, dubbed Prandtl-m, could be the first man-made vehicle to fly on Mars. Scientists at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center have already developed a prototype of the Prandtl-m, which they are currently subjecting to test flights. At first glance, it looks like a giant titanium boomerang.
The Prandtl-m will have a wingspan of 24 inches when deployed, and will be made out of fiberglass and carbon fiber. Weighing in at just under a pound, its current prototype is rather lightweight, but the Martian version of the aircraft could weigh up to 2.6 pounds. That said, given the fact that Mars has significantly less gravity than Earth the added weight will not hamper the aircraft’s ability to fly, but instead allow the aircraft to carry more cameras, sensors, and other on-board equipment.
NASA is currently conducting high altitude tests on the Prandtl-m to see if it can fly under thin atmospheric conditions. As a part of this test, they’ll send the aircraft up on a balloon that will ferry it upward to an altitude of 100,000 feet, to simulate what it would be like to fly in Martian airspace. Future tests will take the Prandtl-m even higher to 450,000 feet.
If the test flights prove successful, the Prandtl-m will be folded up and carried inside the spacecraft that will carry the next rover to Mars in the early 2020s. Once the rover mission reaches the Martian atmosphere, the Prandtl-m will automatically deploy itself over the planet and glide for 20 miles, collecting various data and clicking high-resolution photos of the martian terrain.
Even though a manned mission to the Mars will not happen anytime soon, a man made vehicle flying in the Martian atmosphere would definitely be a significant achievement.