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Prandtl-m prototype could pave way for first plane on Mars

Before the first of the three test flights, the design has to be finalized. To do that, researchers are recruiting the help of community college students.

By Brooks Hays
Prandtl-m prototype could pave way for first plane on Mars
A rendering reveals what a Prandtl-m might look like flying above the surface of Mars. Photo by NASA Illustration / Dennis Calaba

WASHINGTON, June 30 (UPI) -- NASA researchers are preparing to test the prototype that may pave the way for the first plane to fly Martian skies. The airplane is called the Prandtl-m.

The plane was first designed and developed by engineering students working at the space agency as part of an internship program in 2012 and 2013. That model was called the Prandtl-d.

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Scientists at NASA have decided to tweak the design and switch the 'd' to an 'm'. The new prototype is set for test flights later this year. The radio-controlled glider will be lifted to an elevation of 100,000 feet via high-altitude balloon and then released to begin its maiden flight. The upper atmosphere will mimic the thin Martian air.

The plane is collapsible; its foldable wings allow it to be fitted snugly into a stack of three CubeSats, or a 3U CubeSat. CubeSats are the uniform (and affordable) miniature satellites used by NASA and others for a variety of orbital experiments.

While the plane will be lifted in its fully deployed form on the first test, subsequent flights will have the prototype emerge from the mini space probe.

"The aircraft would be part of the ballast that would be ejected from the aeroshell that takes the Mars rover to the planet," Al Bowers, NASA Armstrong chief scientist and Prandtl-m program manager, said in a press release. "It would be able to deploy and fly in the Martian atmosphere and glide down and land. The Prandtl-m could overfly some of the proposed landing sites for a future astronaut mission and send back to Earth very detailed high resolution photographic map images that could tell scientists about the suitability of those landing sites."

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But before the first of the three test flights, the design has to be finalized.

"We have a number of summer community college students coming that are going to help us design and build the aircraft that will complete the first phase of the mission," Bowers said. "We're going to build some vehicles and we are going to put them in very unusual attitudes and see if they will recover where other aircraft would not."

"Our expectation is that they will recover," he continued. "As soon as we get that information, we will feel much better flying it from a high-altitude balloon."

If all goes well on the first couple missions, the plane might be launched into space via rocket and released for a dramatic re-entry flight.

"That mission could be to 450,000 feet and the release from a CubeSat at apogee," Bowser said. "The aircraft would fall back into the Earth's atmosphere and as it approaches the 110,000-to-115,000-feet altitude range, the glider would deploy just as though it was over the surface of Mars."

If the prototype executes the descent with precision, researchers will likely ask NASA headquarters to take Prandtl-m along on the next rover mission to Mars.

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