NASA has unveiled a boomerang-shaped aircraft that could be the first to take flight on Mars to look for potential landing sites for future manned mission to the red planet.
A prototype of the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars, or Prandtl-m, which is a flying wing aircraft with a twist, is planned to be ready for launch from a high altitude balloon later this year, NASA said.
The Prandtlu2013m will be released at about at 100,000 feet altitude, which will simulate the flight conditions of the Martian atmosphere, said Al Bowers, NASA Armstrong chief scientist and Prandtl-m programme manager.
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,” said Bowers.
Because the Prandtl-m could ride in a CubeSat as ballast aboard the aeroshell/Mars rover piggyback stack going to Mars in 2022-2024, the additional weight would not add to the mission’s cost, he said.
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 on Earth.
“We have a number of summer community college students coming that are going to help us design and build the aircraft that will complete the first phase of the mission,” Bowers said.
“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. 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,” said Bowers.