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Engineers propose flying gliders on Mars

Proposed sailplane flights in Valles Marineris
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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8 comments

  • born01930

    is 15,000 feet right? I thought Mars atmosphere was thinner than that.

  • john hare

    Off the top of my head Earth atmosphere density at 100,000 feet is similar to Mars at ground level. Allowing roughly for scale height, it seems 70,000 to 75,000 feet would be a better fit for lift over weight.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Radio-controlled model gliders have reached speeds of one hundred mph on Earth using such dynamic soaring techniques. In the rarified atmosphere of Mars, much higher speeds might be possible, perhaps by piloted gliders… even for sport?! Paradoxically however, the lower gravity might preclude it.

  • pzatchok

    I would like to see a balloon mission.
    The balloon could stay aloft for a long time and drop small gliders to inspect ground level areas.

  • Mike Borgelt

    “Radio-controlled model gliders have reached speeds of one hundred mph on Earth using such dynamic soaring techniques”

    Try more than 400mph..

    Thermals, ridge and wave lift are used by gliders. Evidence of successful dynamic soaring apart for the records above, is hard to come by. I’m not sure albatrosses do all that much of it. They may mostly use the wind blowing over the front of a large swell which is akin to ridge soaring over a moving hill.

  • Jeff Wright

    You need a lot of wingspan. I wonder about side mounting uber wide but thin payloads…that could extend even farther when deployed.

  • Gary

    The other interesting aspect is that it combines both flying over the Martian surface with Cube Sats, two technologies which could greatly enhance our ability to cover lots of ground for much lower costs than today.

  • Edward

    John hare,
    It is possible that they determined the test altitude based upon the Reynolds number for the atmosphere. Their concern over this Reynolds number phenomenon is mentioned in the paper, but the article reads more like they are only trying to test the flying technique (dynamic soaring) rather than duplicating atmospheric conditions on Mars. They may be at the proof-of-concept phase rather than the develop-a-Mars-glider phase of tech development.

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