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Unmanned craft to soar for Mars research

DEVON ISLAND, July 19 (UPI) -- Canadian and American scientists plan to put an unmanned aircraft through a series of test maneuvers over an Arctic impact crater in hopes of learning more about how to fly missions through Martian skies.

"A Mars airplane project will look very different from this one," said Emily Lakdawalla, project coordinator with the Planetary Society, of Pasadena, Calif., which is sponsoring the test flights along with NASA's Ames Research Center and aircraft manufacturer MicroPilot, a division of Loewen Aviation of Canada.

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"However, both projects involve making choices about observational targets that are interesting from a scientific standpoint and safe from an engineering standpoint -- a choice that must be made with every remote sensing mission," Lakdawalla said in an interview with United Press International.

The unmanned aircraft is among dozens of experiments and engineering demonstrations planned during a Mars simulation exercise underway at Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic. NASA sponsors multi-disciplinary field research projects related to Mars science at the rocky polar desert site, which features a 12-mile wide, 23-million-year-old impact crater that bears geologically similar features to craters on Mars.

Weather permitting, first flights of the aircraft are planned for Saturday and Sunday.

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"They're forecasting better weather for Saturday, so I am very hopeful that we'll get several flights under our belts then," said Lakdawalla, from the team's Devon Island base camp.

The aircraft can fly for up to about 20 minutes at a time before refueling and has a range of about five miles, round-trip. The point of the project is to test the plane's ability to navigate by Global Positioning System satellite signals and refine the craft's autopilot navigation, said MicroPilot's Paul Chambers.

Three airplanes are available for the field tests.

"The planes can be refueled and turned around for another flight within a very short time, maybe 15 to 30 minutes, so on one afternoon's field trip with cooperative weather we think we could do five or six separate flights," said Lakdawalla. "I think we'll probably try to fly the same traverse several times with the camera mounted at different orientations -- straight down, angled ahead and down, angled to the side."

The camera transmits a wireless signal to a receiver located on the ground, which in turn sends the image to a mini digital video recorder. The autopilot, which incorporates the GPS receiver, overlays navigational and aircraft data onto the recorded video.

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Mars aircraft probably will not have the luxury of satellite navigation, so engineers are developing artificially intelligent aircraft that can decide autonomously how to navigate through the skies to capture imagery of a particular ground feature.

"The idea is that a scientist might instruct the airplane to navigate to a certain location on Mars ... and then the airplane would explore that location on its own, using onboard software to navigate down gullies, along crater walls, and around volcanoes," said Lakdawalla.

"An airplane on Mars may have a fairly short life, so it's important that it be able to make intelligent decisions to respond to what it senses about its environment," she added.

The tests are intended to help NASA engineers develop a Mars mission concept called BEES for Mars. BEES, an acronym for Bio-inspired Engineering for Exploration Systems, is a research project to develop flight technologies that mimic the behavior patterns of living creatures, such as bees or ants.

(Reported by Irene Brown, UPI Science News, at Cape Canaveral, Fla.)

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