December 3, 2023

NASA’s innovative small Mars helicopter on the surface of Mars has been a complete success. Sent to the Red Planet by the Perseverance rover in 2020, it has now flown 27 times on short reconnaissance missions.

Dexterity reaches parts the rover can’t reach—especially in rocky terrain—but it has its limits. Its small size means a small battery, which means it can fly for only three minutes at a time and is only 39ft/12m in length.

So the engineers have come up with something better for their future trips to Mars that could go much higher for a much longer time – an albatross glider.

Mars is covered from above by many orbiters and on Earth by many rovers, but aside from Ingenuity’s test flights, there are no eyes on that layer in between.

This means that planetary scientists lack data on the Martian climate as well as geological features such as volcanoes and valleys. All this happens in the first few kilometers above the surface.

“This is where all the exchanges between the surface and the atmosphere take place, where dust is captured and sent into the atmosphere, where the trace gases mix, and where large-scale wind modulation occurs by mountain valley flows,” Alexander Kling, research scientist at the Center for Mars Climate Modeling of NASA. “We don’t have a lot of data on this subject.”

So, King partnered with a team of University of Arizona engineers to develop a concept for a lightweight, low-cost wind-powered glider. Published in the magazine outer space this week , paper It details how the albatross-like devices — which have a wingspan of 11 feet and weigh just 11 pounds — can fly over the surface of Mars for days at a time using only wind energy for propulsion. Creativity weighs about 4 lbs.

Onboard will have flight, temperature and gas sensors as well as cameras – but without a battery.

Gliders will fly in vertical winds and, like an albatross in long flight, take advantage of the horizontal wind speed increasing often with altitude to increase speed as direction changes.

Fortunately, there are plenty of horizontal winds on Mars.

The plan is to send a glider or two to Mars as a technical demonstration, perhaps packed in small CubeSats to unfold, origami-style, or carried by balloons from the surface.

When they eventually crash, the researchers say, they can continue to function as weather stations.

I wish you a clear sky and wide eyes.

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