NASA will test the potential of a new type of mars scout robot, a mix between a drone and a glider named Prandtl-m.
The test launch is planned for later this year, the drone will be launched from a high altitude balloon hovering at about 100.000 feet altitude. Launching the aircraft at this altitude will help scientists test how the object behaves in conditions close to those of the Martian atmosphere.
This is not the first project NASA has ever thought of that has the objective of scouting as much as possible of the Martian surface. Along the years NASA scientists have suggested using balloons, helicopters, drones, and other devices in order to accomplish the landscaping task.
NASA is widely famous for always having a plan B, and it seems the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Designed to Land on Mars (Prandtl-m) could be the main secondary mission data gatherer if testing is successful.
The test will allow the scientists to study the behavior of the aircraft and use the data to improve and upgrade the model until it’s planned Mars Mission.
If testing is successful the aircraft will be launched along with a 3U CubeSat from with it will deploy. The 3U CubeSat is made out of 3 smaller CubeSats and the fact that the aircraft could fit in such a small space is consistent with the new low-cost miniaturization that seems to be the future of Mars robotic expeditions.
The aircraft is so small in fact, that it will be transported inside the 3U CubeSat as ballast hitching a ride on the Mars Rover Mission planned for 2022-2024. The CubeSat will be part of the Rover’s Aeroshell and its weight will not be added to the mission’s cost.
The Gliding aircraft will probably have a range of about 20 miles and will fly for about 10 minutes. This might seems very little at first, but considering this is a no added cost piggy back secondary mission, flying over Mars after being launched from a micro-satellite is no small feat.
Development and research will cost however, but NASA has a cost-effective plan for that as well. The small 24 inch wingspan aircraft that is planned for the first test phase will also be worked on by a number of summer community college students alongside NASA specialists.
The students will help design and build the aircraft, and will have the chance to show their ideas and put them in practice slowly developing a robot that will one day be gliding on Mars.
NASA is always happy to engage the public and especially science students, not only does this boost a space programs popularity, but also helps the developing process along.
Even if the students ideas are not entirely perfect they could inspire veteran scientists and help them see the same project from a fresh perspective.
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