NASA is developing an aircraft drone that will fly the Martian skies


Later this year, NASA will test its boomerang-shaped aircraft drone that will someday fly the Martian skies in search of a landing spot for a subsequent manned mission to Mars. 

NASA’s Mars-bound aircraft drone, called the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars (or Prandtl-m for short), will be part of a larger coordinated landing and take-off system. According to Al Bowers, NASA Armstrong chief scientist and Prandtl-m program manager, the Prandtl-m is being designed to launch from a descending rover as it approaches Mars. “The aircraft would be part of the ballast that would be ejected from the aeroshell that takes the Mars rover to the planet,” frothed Bowers with excitement, “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.”

Martian skies, get ready for the Prandtl-m aircraft drone!

NASA mars aircraft drone

Image credit: NASA Photo / Ken Ulbrich

Currently, NASA’s aircraft drone measures two feet long and weighs about 2.6 pounds on Earth. On Mars, however, and due to the red planet’s gravity, the Prandtl-m’s weight will be reduced to one pound and will be capable of flying 20 miles from launch. “It would have a flight time of right around 10 minutes. The aircraft would be gliding for the last 2,000 feet to the surface of Mars and have a range of about 20 miles,” said Bowers.

For now, NASA is planning two test flights during which the Prandtl-m will launch from a balloon, one later this year and another in 2016. Each test will assess how well the Prandtl-m can carry equipment like a surveyor camera to study high-altitude radiation and survey land. “We could have one of two small science payloads on the Prandtl-m on that first balloon flight,” Bowers goes on to explain. “It might be the mapping camera, or one might be a small, high-altitude radiometer to measure radiation at very high altitudes of Earth’s atmosphere. Eventually the aircraft may carry both of them at the same time.” A possible third test will mimic the actual deployment that will take place on Mars. 

The rover that will eventually head toward Mars and carry the Prandtl-m aircraft drone will take place sometime between 2022 and 2024.

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Kristian strives to enlighten and entertain readers. In addition to his teaching and editorial responsibilities, he is working on a science-fiction novel that promises not to include exoskeleton suits and anemic aliens floating in mysterious vats of green-tinted goop.

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