Engineers designed motorless sailplanes that could soon help explore Mars

The vehicles will be equipped with flight, temperature and gas sensors as well as cameras.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Adrien Bouskela and Sergey Shkarayev holding an experimental sailplane. University of Arizona College of Engineering

We have all heard of Mars' Perseverance, the robotic explorer currently roaming on the Red Planet. It's one of eight active spacecraft, including three operated by NASA, that currently orbit Mars, gathering imagery and other data related to the planet.

But what lies in the hundreds of kilometers between the rovers and the orbiters remains a mystery to space explorers as there are no aircraft available to study these areas as of yet. 

An out-of-reach critical piece in Mars' planetary boundary layer

"You have this really important, critical piece in this planetary boundary layer, like in the first few kilometers above the ground," said Alexandre Kling, a research scientist in NASA's Mars Climate Modeling Center.

"This is where all the exchanges between the surface and atmosphere happen. This is where the dust is picked up and sent into the atmosphere, where trace gases are mixed, and where the modulation of large-scale winds by mountain-valley flows happens. And we just don't have very much data about it."

To tackle this obstacle, Kling has joined forces with a team of University of Arizona engineers to develop a motorless sailplane that can soar over the Martian surface for days at a time, using only wind energy for propulsion. The vehicle will be equipped with flight, temperature and gas sensors as well as cameras.

Despite this, it will weigh only 11 pounds making it easy to navigate in the Martian atmosphere.

"These other technologies have all been very limited by energy," said the paper's first author, Adrien Bouskela, an aerospace engineering doctoral student in University of Arizona professor Sergey Shkarayev's Micro Air Vehicles Laboratory.

"What we're proposing is just using the energy in situ. It's kind of a leap forward in those methods of extending missions. Because the main question is: How can you fly for free? How can you use the wind that's there, the thermal dynamics that are there, to avoid using solar panels and relying on batteries that need to be recharged?"

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Capturing images of new areas

Current vehicles roaming on Mars have mostly captured images of Mars' flat plains because that is the only area where the rovers can safely land. But the new and improved sailplanes would be able to explore new areas by taking advantage of how wind patterns shift around geologic formations such as canyons and volcanoes.

"With this platform, you could just fly around and access those really interesting, really cool places," Kling said.

But what would happen once the planes landed on Mars and could not take off again? The mission would go on with the planes now serving as weather stations, continuing to relay information about the atmosphere back to the spacecraft.

Now, Kling hopes that the low-cost nature of his new planes will allow them to become operational on the Red Planet perhaps in years rather than the decades needed for a full-scale mission.

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