If we hope to someday make a home, or at least a longer stopover up on Mars, then we’re going to need a way to get around and see what’s up there. This boomerang-shaped prototype Martian airplane—the first of its kind—just may be it.
NASA Armstrong is planning to drop this prototype Martian glider, which they’re calling the Prandtl-m, from a high-flying balloon in our own atmosphere later this year. By dropping it from 100,000 feet over Earth they say they can get a pretty good idea of how it might perform in Martian conditions.
Of course, this is only the first in a series of tests for the plane—but if all goes well, the hope is that it could be dropped in a similar scenario over Mars, although instead of falling from a high-altitude balloon, it would fall from a deployed-satellite from a future Martian Rover, possibly even in the 2020s when the next rover makes its way to the red planet.
If you have visions of piloting yourself around the surface of Mars and revisiting some of Curiosity’s best-ofs, prepare yourself for a disappointment: The Prandtl-m isn’t a passenger plane.
For starters it’s far too small: the glider would have a wingspan of only 24 inches and would weigh under a pound on Mars (though 2.6 pounds here on Earth). Instead the hope is to outfit it with a series of high-definition cameras and let it glide over the surface. Though it would only run for approximately 10 minutes, NASA says it would cover 20 miles in that span of time. That’s enough to return a pretty decent fly-over view of what we’re missing—and just where we might want to land when we do make a longer trip.
Image: NASA Illustration / Dennis Calaba