Aircraft

NASA to test Mars flying wing drone

Artist's concept of a flying wing on Mars
Artist's concept of a flying wing on Mars
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Downloading data from a Prandtl-d flight
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Downloading data from a Prandtl-d flight
Al Bowers attaches a bungee cord to the Prandtl-d, as Kassidy McLaughlin prepares to release and launch the aircraft
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Al Bowers attaches a bungee cord to the Prandtl-d, as Kassidy McLaughlin prepares to release and launch the aircraft
The proposed Prandtl-m is based on the Prandtl-d
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The proposed Prandtl-m is based on the Prandtl-d
Artist's concept of a flying wing on Mars
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Artist's concept of a flying wing on Mars

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 proposed Prandtl-m is based on the Prandtl-d
The proposed Prandtl-m is based on the Prandtl-d

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.

Al Bowers attaches a bungee cord to the Prandtl-d, as Kassidy McLaughlin prepares to release and launch the aircraft
Al Bowers attaches a bungee cord to the Prandtl-d, as Kassidy McLaughlin prepares to release and launch the aircraft

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.

Source: NASA

11 comments
Derek Howe
about time. I remember a NASA Mars aircraft from around a decade ago, I think it was called Ares. I think it was going to be rocket powered. They (NASA) built it, and did a bunch of tests with it, but the Mars mission never got the green light. Ended up being another waste of tax payers money by NASA...and they wonder why they never get full funding.
BeWalt
@Derek Howe: I'm so sick and tired of all this honking about "taxpayers money". So the people working on Ares (scientists, engineers, others) did not make a living, spending their income and contributing to their local economies? Well they did. On top, they ordered stuff from companies to develop parts of the Ares. That kept these companies going. Complaints? Companies that kept employing people who drew a salary that made the economy move. Complaints? On top, companies developing technologies that enabled them to keep up with the state of the art instead of shuttering and closing operations because of someone saving "taxpayers money" which - when you look closely - turns out to be pennies. Wanna save these pennies and move to a place with no taxes AT ALL? The marketplace doing its very best, enabling proud gun owners to live their "free" lives carrying their gun even to just buy some milk (if available)? Welcome to Somalia. Enjoy! And keep dreaming about a world in which no taxpayer penny ever goes to projects that seem to not return a benefit to you (the casual observer), and keep dreaming about living in a country with an amazing high tech sector. Sleep well, on top of you pillow with your saved tax money. I have to say I am proud to pay taxes in a country worth paying taxes for. I love every bit of it.
christopher
Students? Hey - lets get a bunch of kids, not even out of school yet, and let them build something for Mars. Fun idea, but doomed to the stupid failure it deserves. If this was a real project, actual trained engineers would be working on it, but since it's just kids, that means this is a fake "feel good" public relations thing that is not seriously planned for any real deployment.
MD
funny one. Its mass is still 1.8 kg on Mars (the same as on Earth). Its weight (a force) is approximately 17.65 Newtons on earth and 6.68N on mars. So this is a drone, but the orbiter/lander (or any other unmanned space vehicles) isn't?? lol.
Martin Hone
Prandtl-m ? I think it should be called a Boomerang, though I guess it is not going to come back.......
Douglas Bennett Rogers
A lot of tax money is wasted "reinventing the wheel". Also, money is "stored" in programs. Work done on those programs is wasted. B-2 is a good example of this.
Catweazle
The flight simulator X-plane has a Mars emulator, complete with correct atmosphere, gravity and aa aerodynamically correctly flyable aeroplane, and is complete with all necessary tools to design, develop and build models, even down to having a finite element analysis package to tune your aerofoils. Not for the faint-hearted!
Stephen N Russell
See movie Conquest of Space showing Flying wing for return from space from 1950s.
Derek Howe
@ Bewalt Yes, the money spent on Ares did help the businesses that made parts for it. But my point is that it was all for nothing. When it comes down to money, I view private companies and public (government) companies differently. Because one is uses money they have acquired through their profits. While the other is uses our tax money...something that shouldn't be squandered. I understand that everyone should pay taxes, they're a necessary evil. But what irritates me is all the government waste that goes on, then they claim they need to raise taxes on everyone. When they need to be focused on the other side of the coin...Cutting spending.
gseattle
From Wikipedia: "The highest atmospheric density on Mars is equal to that found 35 km (22 mi)[134] above Earth's surface." Highest known plane altitude record on earth: A little under 10 miles high. However, we can make that work on Mars, since Mars rarely warms up above freezing, we heat up Venus to boiling, bring them near each other, Mars will condense some new atmosphere and you take it from there, my work is done.
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