Could This Be The First Airplane To Fly On Mars? NASA Thinks So

NASA is preparing to test a new flying wing aircraft, and if all goes according to plan, the drone could be the first man-made object to take flight in the skies of Mars.

Until now, all missions to Mars have taken place either in orbit or directly on the planet’s surface, yet an ambitious new program under development at NASA Armstrong appears set to change that. Dubbed the Prandtl-m (Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars) according to Engadget, a prototype of the aircraft is currently under construction.

Measuring just 24 inches across its wingspan, the Prandtl-m is a glider drone, and is intended to be launched from a rover during its descent to the surface of Mars. Though it tips the scales at 2.6 lb (1.8 kg) on Earth, the drone will weigh just a single pound on Mars, thanks to the Red Planet’s lower gravity. NASA believes this could give it an effective range of roughly 20 miles, if it were deployed 2,000 feet above the surface of Mars. The Prandtl-m is capable of self-correcting its altitude during descent, and is intended to be launched from a 3U CubeSat which will be contained in the aeroshell of a future Mars rover, as Gizmag reports.

Later this year, the prototype will be launched from an altitude of 100,000 feet in several tests, during which it will be dropped from a balloon. One of those tests will include GPS guidance, though a future Mars mission would use a different system. These tests will keep the glider airborne for five hours as it guides itself back to base, carrying a mapping camera and a high-altitude radiometer.

Further tests will be conducted using a sounding rocket, which will drop the aircraft from a height of 450,00 feet. Upon reaching a proscribed altitude, the drone will then deploy, simulating a landing on Mars.

Though the project seems ambitious, it is not the only design for a flying drone to be sent to Mars. As the Inquisitr previously reported, NASA also has considered the possibility of deploying a helicopter drone on our neighbor planet.

Researchers assert that the glider could be used to scout future landing sites for manned missions to Mars. It would be able to collect and relay extremely highly detailed images of the planet’s surface, surpassing the resolution of an orbital platform.

NASA claims that the drone could possibly fly on a mission as soon as 2022 or 2024, at which time the flying wing will become the first aircraft to take to the skies of Mars.

[Image: NASA/ Dennis Calaba via Gizmag]