Proposed sailplane flights in Valles Marineris. Click for full image.
Engineers at the University of Arizona are developing a prototype sailplane that they think could fly for long distances on Mars at higher altitudes than a helicopter and not be reliant on solar batteries.
Using dynamic soaring, the sailplane utilises increases in horizontal wind speed with gaining altitude to continue flying long distances. It’s the same process albatrosses use to fly long distances without flapping their wings and expending crucial energy.
After lifting themselves up into fast, high-altitude air, albatrosses then turn their bodies to descend rapidly into regions of slower, low-altitude air. With the force of gravity providing downward acceleration, the albatross uses this momentum to slingshot itself back to higher altitudes. Continuously repeating this process enables albatross and other seabird species to cover thousands of kilometres of ocean, flap-free.
It’s the inspiration for the sailplane’s own propulsion system, enabling it to cover the canyons and volcanoes dotted across the red planet currently inaccessible to Mars rovers.
The graphic above, figure 1 from the engineers’ research paper, shows one possible sailplane mission, deploying two gliders, one to observe the canyon wall and a second to survey the canyon floor. Both would become a weather station upon landing. While the paper doesn’t state a Mars location for this concept, the graphic strikes a strong resemblance to the section of Valles Marineris where scientists have recently taken “Mars Helicopter” high resolution images using Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This paper and those images might be related, or they could be illustrating the general interest by many scientists for this Mars’ location.
Regardless, the engineers are now planning test flights at 15,000 feet elevation, an elevation that will most closely simulate the atmosphere of Mars, on Earth.
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