NASA’s New Composite Aircraft Could Be the First to Fly on Mars

A prototype of the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars, or Prandtl-m for short is planned to be ready for 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.

These tests could validate how the flying wing 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 proposed Prandtl-m is based on the Prandtl-d seen coming in for a landing during a flight test in June.

The aircraft would be part of the ballast that would be ejected from the aeroshell that takes the Mars rover to the planet and would be able to deploy and fly in the Martian atmosphere where it will 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 craft would have a flight time of around 10 minutes and would be gliding for the last 2,000 feet to the surface of Mars with a range of around 20 miles.

The aircraft’s wingspan when it is deployed would measure 24 inches and weigh less than a pound. The finial craft will be constructed either from fibreglass or carbon fibre and will weight in at less than half a kilo, which will make it super light and strong enough to take a beating from any unexpected conditions.

The Flight Opportunities Program, which is managed at NASA Armstrong, has agreed to fund two balloon flights during the next several years and potentially a sounding rocket flight following that to demonstrate how the flier would work on Mars, Bowers said. The flights will be at one of two locations – Tucson, Arizona, or Tillamook, Oregon. NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California, manages the Flight Opportunities solicitation and selection of technologies to be tested and demonstrated on commercial flight vehicles.

Credits: NASA Photo / Ken Ulbrich

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