NASA to test Mars flying wing drone

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Artist's concept of a flying wing on Mars(Credit: NASA/Dennis Calaba)

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If a NASA experimental program pans out, the first aircraft on Mars could be a flying wing. Under development at NASA Armstrong, the Prandtl–m is a flying wing glider designed to fly piggyback with a future Mars rover mission to provide low-altitude reconnaissance. It's scheduled to begin test flights later this year.

Up to now, Mars missions have operated at two altitudes: orbital and on the ground. NASA hopes to fill that gap with the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars (Prandtl–m) prototype flying wing glider, that would lead to a version that would deploy prior to landing to provide images and telemetry for very low altitudes.

Based on the earlier Prandtl-d, the Prandtl-m flying wing glider is being developed under NASA Armstrong's Flight Opportunities Program. The Prandtl-m is of a very simple design, capable of self-correcting its attitude during descent. Made of composite material, it has a 24-in (61-cm) wingspan and weighs up to 2.6 lb (1.8 kg) on Earth. It's designed to fold up and deploy from a 3U CubeSat in the aeroshell of a future Mars rover. The acronym 3U refers to the number of CubeSat units that would make up the drop vehicle. A CubeSat is miniature satellite about 4 in (10 cm) on a side.

The design is still being sorted out by a team of summer community college students. Models based on their results will be dropped at various orientations prior to the flight tests, to see the wing's ability to recover.

Once this work is completed later this year, NASA will conduct the first of three planned flight tests designed to simulate Martian flight conditions, including two balloon drops at Tucson, Arizona, or Tillamook, Oregon from an altitude of 100,000 ft (30,500 m). During these tests, the aircraft will fly back to base over a five-hour period. The first test will use GPS for navigation, but a dead reckoning system will need to be developed for an actual Mars mission. The tests will include a mapping camera or a high-altitude radiometer, and eventually both.

If successful, the balloon drops could be followed by a launch from a sounding rocket, which would drop the folded Prandtl-m from 450,00 ft (137,000 m). The glider would then deploy at 110,000 to 115,000 ft (33,500 - 35,000 m) to simulate a Mars landing.

The space agency says that a flying wing based on Prandtl-m could fly on a NASA Mars rover mission in 2022 - 2024. The glider would travel folded up in the spacecraft’s aeroshell and deploy during the descent through the atmosphere.

"The aircraft would be part of the ballast that would be ejected from the aeroshell that takes the Mars rover to the planet," says Al Bowers, NASA Armstrong chief scientist and Prandtl-m program manager. "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."

Bowers says that the glider would deploy at about 2,000 ft (610 m), have range of 20 mi (32 km), and have a total flight time of 10 minutes.

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