The new vehicle, which was dubbed “Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars” (Prandtl-m), is expected to be launched from an inflatable balloon at a 100,000 foot distance above the Martian grounds. If all goes according to plan, Prandtl-m will be the first aircraft deployed on Mars. But that may not happen sooner than 2020.
NASA team currently tries to figure a way of making the plane foldable so it can be launched to the Martian surface just like a robotic rover would be.
Al Bowers, the project manager of Prandtl-m, disclosed in a recent statement that the aircraft will be ready to fly on Mars on the day it would survive a 450,000 foot drop. When that succeeds the team would request NASA permission to ride on the Red Planet with one of the robotic rovers.
The plan is to deploy the boomerang-shaped craft from a satellite, let it reach smoothly the surface and soft land. At that point, mission navigators will be able to control the plane and fly it across Mars just like a drone. The aircraft’s main goal will be to detect perfect landing sites for a manned mission and to asses how safe a landing would be on those sites.
Currently NASA has pumped enough money into the project to support two balloon drop simulations. The two simulations will occur in the next few years, but until then the team must find a way of tracking the craft on Mars.
We know that there is no GPS on Mars (although simulations will employ it), so NASA researchers need to find a totally different technology for navigation.
NASA also revealed the reason why the tiny craft is boomerang shaped. The weird design should help it survive the drop down to the Martian soil. It won’t mean that if you toss it, it would spin around and return to the starting point.
The material of choice for Prandtl-m will be either carbon fiber or fiberglass, two materials that are very light and sturdy enough to resist the friction after the craft gets deployed.
“We believe this particular design could best recover from the unusual conditions of an ejection,”
Mr. Bower added.
In the mean time, NASA is also working on a robotic assistant for space exploration missions called Valkyrie robot. Valkyrie will be remotely controlled and ordered to explore and build bases that humans will use upon their arrival at the Red Planet.
Image Source: NASA