NASA (Space Pavilion) is showing a model of an aircraft with a difference - it's designed to fly in the Martian atmosphere.

The Mars Flyer is designed to enter the atmosphere, open its wings and then fly up to 60-90km at about 170m/sec.

As Dr Victor Lebacqz, associate administrator in NASA's Office of Aeronautics, explains, the reasoning behind Mars Flyer is sound: "If man is to travel to Mars, he is going to need accurate maps to find good landing spots. A Martian Rover can only travel about 300m (980ft) from where it is dropped. An aeroplane could cover the same distance in less than two seconds."

NASA's research work into UAVs is reaping rewards for the project, as any aircraft would have to be fully autonomous.

But designing an aircraft to fly in the Martian atmosphere is no mean feat. First, its density is much less than Earth's, and there isn't oxygen for a conventional jet engine.

NASA got around the first problem by testing a prototype quarter-scale Mars Flyer 100,000ft up in the Earth's atmosphere where the air is a lot thinner, just like Mars.

"The second problem means we need to use a rocket engine, which doesn't need oxygen," says Dr Lebacqz. "We looked at using balloons for a mission, but the strong Martian winds would create havoc and they would be uncontrollable. An aircraft makes the most sense and can cover a lot of ground, gathering data as it goes."

Another plan is for the Mars Flyer to survey large areas of the Martian surface by dropping a series of large spheres. The spheres would generate subsurface seismic waves that could be used to probe the Martian subterranean structure to locate ice.

Dr Lebacqz says that his group is currently bidding for Mars Flyer to take part in a mission in 2009, but there is a lot of competition.

The Spirit and Opportunity rovers that landed on Mars in January 2004 are the latest in a series of research missions planned to explore Mars through 2010.



Source: Flight Daily News