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NASA to test miniature glider for future Mars mission

An illustration of a glider prototype flying over the surface of Mars. NASA/Dennis Calaba

NASA to test miniature glider for future Mars mission

NASA is planning to deploy a small glider during a future Mars rover mission to fill the exploration gap between orbit and the planet’s surface. The aircraft, designed to deploy from a spacecraft’s entry vehicle—or aeroshell—as it descends through the Martian atmosphere, would be able to provide high resolution images of the surface not obtainable from orbit.

A prototype of the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars, or Prandtl-m, being developed at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, will be launched later this year from a balloon at an altitude of 100,000 feet, simulating the flight conditions of the Martian atmosphere.

The glider will be designed to eject from the entry vehicle carrying the Mars rover, said Al Bowers, NASA Armstrong chief scientist and program manager of the project. Its mission will be to take photographs of the planet’s terrain to help determine the suitability of possible landing sites for future manned missions.

Bowers is working with community college students during the summer to help design and build the experimental aircraft prior to high-altitude testing.

“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,” Bowers said. “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.”

If the two planned balloon drops are successful, NASA plans to launch the glider in a sounding rocket to an altitude of 450,000 feet. The aircraft, folded into a compact container called a CubeSat, would be released and fall back into Earth’s atmosphere where it would deploy at about 100,000 feet, simulating its release from the aeroshell over Mars.

The actual aircraft, built of a composite material such as carbon fiber, would have a wingspan of 24 inches and weigh about 2.6 pounds on Earth. On Mars, where gravity is only 38 percent of Earth’s, the glider would weigh less than a pound.

The mission profile wouldn’t keep the glider in the Martian air for very long—about 10 minutes, with a range of 20 miles.

NASA hopes the glider will ride on a Mars rover mission in eight to 10 years.

Michael Cochrane Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.

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