The University of Kentucky is testing a glider with inflatable wings as part of plans to fly an aircraft on Mars by 2008.

The team's design, called project Big Blue, is being launched from a balloon at an altitude of 100,000ft (30,500m). The glider sprouts inflatable wings, the surfaces of which harden to flight readiness when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Mars's atmosphere is less than 1% of the density of the Earth's and any glider would need long, thin wings. To avoid the problems of folding such large, rigid structures into a small package, the team designed a wing consisting of parallel inflatable tubes to ease deployment. Conditions at the launch altitude resemble the air density and UV levels on Mars.

To overcome the problem of wing flexing in flight, the university is working with ILC Dover to produce an epoxy material that hardens when exposed to UV light, says Suzanne Smith, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Fredrica, Delaware-based ILC, which makes space suits for US astronauts, is making the wings.

Inflation and avionics testing is being conducted this month, and the team hopes to carry out a full test inflation, drop and controlled flight next January.

NASA is funding the project as part of its Space Grant Aerospace Workforce Development Programme, and the Langley Research Center is providing "photogrammetry" technology - a surface measurement technique using light beams to verify wing shape during flight.

Source: Flight International