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Motorless sailplane could examine unknown features of Mars’ atmosphere

The Mars sailplanes will contain a custom-designed array of navigation sensors, as well as a camera and temperature and gas sensors to gather information about the Martian atmosphere and landscape. Credit: Emily Dieckman / College of Engineering

Budapest, 11 July 2022. – University of Arizona aerospace experts and a NASA planetary scientist took inspiration from albatross flight to develop a sailplane that could potentially examine the Red Planet’s atmosphere and geology.

Atmospheric climate processes take place in the first few kilometers above the ground. This is the region where the exchanges between the surface and atmosphere happen and where trace gases are mixed. The aim of the five-kilogram motorless sailplane is to examine this area. It will utilize wind energy for propulsion and will be equipped with flight, temperature and gas sensors as well as cameras.

Mars has a very thin atmosphere which makes flying challenging. The sailplanes would have a wingspan of 3.4 m and will be able to fly for days at a time. They achieve this by either simple static soaring using vertical winds or dynamic soaring, utilizing horizontal winds. The sailplanes would also be able to explore geologic formations such as canyons and volcanoes by taking advantage of how wind patterns shift around them, the team said.

The team is planning to deploy the sailplanes packaged in CubeSats. Once released, the planes would either unfold or inflate and rigidize at their full size. They would keep relaying information about Mars’ atmosphere back to the spacecraft even after their operational life is over, acting as weather stations. The team is currently conducting tests with experimental planes at about 4,600 m above sea level.

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