†Nanowork NewsEight active spacecraft, including three operated by NASA, orbit Mars, collecting images of the planet’s surface at a resolution of about 1 foot per pixel. Three rovers traverse the ground, mapping small areas of the planet more accurately. But what lies in the hundreds of miles between the rovers and the orbiters — including atmospheric climate processes and geological features such as volcanoes and canyons — is often of most interest to planetary scientists.
“You’ve got this really important, crucial piece in this planetary boundary layer, like in the first few miles above the ground,” said Alexandre Kling, a research scientist at NASA’s Mars Climate Modeling Center. “This is where all the exchanges between the surface and the atmosphere take place. This is where the dust is picked up and sent to the atmosphere, where trace gases are mixed, where the modulation of large-scale winds by mountain valley currents takes place. And we just don’t have many of them.” data about.”
Kling is working with a team of engineers from the University of Arizona that aims to fill this data gap by designing an engineless glider that can fly over the surface of Mars for days, using only wind energy for propulsion. Equipped with flight, temperature and gas sensors and cameras, the gliders would weigh just 11 pounds each.
The team details its proposal in a paper published in the journal Aerospace †“Mars Exploration with Gliders”†
The Flight of the Albatross
Flight on Mars is challenging due to the planet’s thin atmosphere, and this isn’t the first team to try to tackle it. Most notably, NASA’s Ingenuity is a 4-pound helicopter that landed in Mars’ Jezero crater in 2021. With miniaturized flight technology and a rotor system of about four feet, it is the first device to test powered, controlled flight on another planet. But the solar-powered vehicle can only fly for three minutes at a time, reaching a height of just 12 meters, or about 39 feet.
“These other technologies are all very limited by energy,” said the paper’s lead author, Adrien Bouskela, a doctoral student in aerospace engineering at UArizona Professor Sergey Shkarayev’s Micro Air Vehicles Laboratory. “What we’re proposing is just using the energy on the ground. It’s kind of a leap forward in those methods of expanding 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 exist, to avoid the use of solar panels and rely on batteries to be recharged?”
Lightweight, inexpensive, wind-powered gliders may be the answer. The aircraft, which have a wingspan of about 3 meters, will use a variety of flight methods, including simple static flying if there is sufficient vertical wind. But they could also use a technique called dynamic ascent, which, like an albatross on a long journey, takes advantage of how horizontal wind speed often increases with altitude — a phenomenon especially common on Mars.
Dynamic ascent resembles the S-shaped pattern skiers use to control their descent down a mountain. However, every time the glider changes direction, it also begins to change altitude – and instead of slowing the glider down, the maneuver helps it gain speed.
The planes fly at a slight upward angle in the slow-moving, low-lying wind. When they reach the faster winds at high altitudes, they turn 180 degrees and allow the fast winds to propel them forward at a slight downward angle. When the energy of the fast winds runs out, they repeat the process and make their way forward.
These nimble maneuvers allow the gliders to continuously extract energy from the atmosphere, flying for hours or even days at a time. This is free flying.
“It’s almost something you have to see to believe it,” said study co-author Jekan Thanga, an associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at UArizona.
Current rovers have mostly captured images of the flat, sandy plains of Mars — the only areas where the rovers can safely land. But the gliders could explore new areas by taking advantage of how wind patterns shift around geological formations such as canyons and volcanoes.
“With this platform, you can just fly around and access those really interesting, really cool places,” Kling said.
Good things come in small packages
The team proposes to send the gliders to Mars as a secondary payload on a larger mission. Thanga investigates how to deploy the spacecraft’s gliders into the atmosphere. On the spacecraft, the gliders are packaged in CubeSats, miniature satellites not much bigger than a phone book. Once the CubeSats were launched and the planes released, the planes would either unfold, like origami, or inflate, like high-tech pool floats, and stiffen to their full size.
The team is also investigating the possibility of a balloon or hot air balloon launching the gliders into the atmosphere. This would slow the gliders’ descent and allow them to take off when the wind is optimal or when they are approaching an area of high interest. The gliders can even get stuck in the balloon or zeppelin again after a flight and complete multiple missions.
Flight ends, mission continues
After landing on the surface of Mars, the planes would continue to relay information about the atmosphere back to the spacecraft, essentially weather stations. Meteorologists can predict Earth’s weather with relative accuracy, in part because there are weather stations all over our planet that form a network of information, and all the data they collect is constantly fed back into predictive models. So any Mars glider that stopped flying — whether it completes exploration as planned or something went wrong — could become another extremely important node in this network.
“If we run out of flight energy, or if our inertial sensors suddenly fail for some reason, we expect to keep doing science,” Bouskela said. “From a planetary science perspective, the mission continues.”
The team has done extensive mathematical modeling for glider flight patterns based on climate data from Mars. And there is still more research to be done on flight routes, possible docking systems and more. But this summer, they will test experimental aircraft at about 15,000 feet above sea level, where Earth’s atmosphere is thinner and flight conditions more similar to those on Mars.
“We can use Earth as a laboratory to study flight on Mars,” Shkarayev said.
The team eventually hopes that NASA will fund the mission and allow it to “take a ride” on a large-scale Mars mission already in development. The cheap nature of the glider effort means it can come to fruition relatively quickly, Kling said, perhaps in years rather than the decades it takes for a full mission.
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