Engineers are designing a motorless sailplane that can soar over the Martian surface for days at a time, using only wind energy for propulsion.
Currently there are 8 spacecraft, including three operated by NASA, orbiting Mars, gathering imagery of the planet’s surface at a resolution of about 1 foot per pixel.
In addition to those there are 3 rovers mapping small areas on the planet surface.
To find out even more about Mars a team of engineers from the University of Arizona along with Alexandre Kling, a research scientist in NASA’s Mars Climate Modeling Center are working on sailplanes. Equipped with flight, temperature and gas sensors as well as cameras, the sailplanes would weigh only 11 pounds each.
Designing crafts to fly above the Martian surface resulted in NASA’s Ingenuity. It is a 4-pound helicopter that landed in Mars’ Jezero Crater in 2021. With miniaturized flight technology and a rotor system span of about 4 feet, it’s the first device to test powered, controlled flight on another planet. But the solar-powered vehicle can fly for only three minutes at a time, and it reaches heights of just 12 meters, or about 39 feet.
The sailplanes would be able to explore new areas by taking advantage of how wind patterns shift around geologic formations such as canyons and volcanoes.
It could use simple static soaring when sufficient vertical winds are present. But it could also use dynamic soaring, which, like an albatross on a long journey, takes advantage of how horizontal wind speed often increases with altitude – a phenomenon particularly common on Mars.
To get to Mars the sailplanes would be packaged for the journey on a spacecraft in CubeSats, miniature satellites not much larger than a phonebook. Once the CubeSats are launched from the spacecraft into the Martian atmosphere, the planes are released. They would either unfold, like origami, or inflate to their full size.
Another proposal is to use a large balloon to deploy the sailplane into the atmosphere
The team details its proposal in a paper published in the journal Aerospace: Mars Exploration Using Sailplanes
Sydney Jordan’s ‘Lance Mclane’ strip for the Daily Record (1976-1988) was set 100 years in the future and included a base on Mars from which explorers went out in sailplanes just like this. For the ‘Vikings and Mars’ exhibition in Largs in 1985, Gordon Ross (of the Industrial Design Unit at Glasgow School of Art) designed an automated Mars inflatable aircraft called the ‘Dick-Dick’, and he and I collaborated on a story featuring it called ‘Sails in the Red Sunset’ which ran in the strip from May to October that year, and was reprinted with notes on the aircraft in Vol. 10 No. 2 of Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos, November 2014. It’s nice to know we were all on right lines!