On April 19, 2021, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter became the first powerful spacecraft to land on Mars. The 39-second landmark aircraft has set the stage for a new exploration of other planets, encouraging engineers to design more significant, durable aircraft to fly over the Martian surface.
A team of University of Arizona engineers has designed a drone that can fly to Mars, where it will fly for days at a time. The pre-flight prototype of the sailing plane had just completed a small test flight while attached to the balloon. According to a press release, the team plans more system tests at higher elevations in late summer.
Driving a plane on the Red Planet is much more challenging than on Earth due to the awkward little atmosphere on Mars. The Martian atmosphere is less than 1 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere, making it difficult for planes to land high. NASA’s spacecraft weighs just over 15 pounds [4 kg] and pulls out two carbon fiber rotors that rotate faster than any other helicopter. But Ingenuity has limitations, including solar panels that charge a single 90-second flight. On the other hand, designing a sailplane will allow the aircraft to fly for days at a time and in the same way as an albatross flying in the sky over long distances while also creating an S-shaped pattern that helps it gain speed.
The sailplane is lightweight, weighing 15 pounds (5 kg), and has wingspans of up to 40 feet (11 m). With enough gusts of wind, the plane could not fly without effort (albeit visually) flying in the Martian sky. If not, it may participate in the ever-increasing altitude, flying at a slight angle into the low-lying air and then turning 180 degrees when it reaches high heights with fast-moving winds. The winds would blow the plane forward, albeit slightly downward, and when it got high ground, it would repeat the same process by going up and down the squiggly line. This process can allow a sail aircraft to fly for hours or days at a time, according to a study by researchers published in Aerospace. The team is also considering whether to attach a sailplane to a balloon or a blimp that can hover high in the sky.
Martian rovers have been crossing Mars while orbiting spacecraft have explored space. A spaceship was about to explore the planet’s most critical but essential part — the cosmos.
“You have this very important, critical fragment on this planetary boundary layer, as in the first few kilometers above the earth,” Alexandre Kling, a research scientist at NASA’s Climate Modeling Center, said in a statement. “This is where all the trade between space and space takes place. It is where dust is picked up and sent into space, where trace gases are mixed, where high volcanic fluctuations in the flow of mountain valleys occur. And we don’t have many details about it.”
As light as it is, the sailplane may land on Mars near a large payload, much like the Ingenuity implanted in the abdomen of a Perseverance rover during its voyage to the Red Planet. Once on Mars, the sailboat may descend from CubeSat and automatically spread its wings once above.
A team of engineers piloting a sail aircraft will perform additional tests later this summer, flying a sailplane at an altitude of 15,000 feet above sea level (4,500 meters) when the atmosphere is very narrow. “We can use the Earth as an aeronautical laboratory on Mars,” said Sergey Shkarayev, a professor of Aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Arizona, in a statement. Once the exploration is completed, the team hopes to launch a spacecraft to launch Mars sometime within the next few years.