NASA has revealed that it has the prototype of the first ever aircraft meant to be flown on Mars. Called the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars, or the Prandtl-m, the flying machine is being planned for test launch using a high altitude balloon over 100,000 feet altitude later in the year, according to the space agency.
The wing aircraft, while is still incomplete at this point, appears to resemble a boomerang with a 24-inch wingspan. It is said to be made of fiberglass or carbon fiber and weighs just under a pound. Since Mars has less gravity than Earth, the prototype aircraft does need to be light so that it can fly efficiently.
Testing Prandtl-m's capability on high altitude is also a necessity since the atmosphere on Mars is thinner compared to the Earth. Additional tests set for the following year will evaluate the Prandtl-m flying at 450,000 feet or higher. A third test flight may also be conducted afterwards.
If NASA is successful with its tests, the aircraft will then be sent to the Red Planet folded up in a 3U CubeSat between the years 2022 to 2024, according to Engadget.
"The aircraft would be part of the ballast that would be ejected from the aeroshell that takes the Mars rover to the planet," said Al Bowers, NASA's program manager for the Prandtl-m. "It would be able to deploy and fly in the Martian atmosphere and glide down and land. The Prandtl-m could overfly some of the proposed landing sites for a future astronaut mission and send back to Earth very detailed high resolution photographic map images that could tell scientists about the suitability of those landing sites."
Bowers revealed that the idea for Prandtl-m came from his colleague Dave Berger, an aeronautical engineer specializing in flow physics and propulsion at NASA.
Prandtl-m is being built by the space station's engineers with the help of college students. "We have a number of summer community college students coming that are going to help us design and build the aircraft that will complete the first phase of the mission," Bower said.