Motorless glider for exploring Mars soars like albatross

The enormous success of the Mars helicopter ingenuity has proven that it is possible to explore other planets from the sky, and researchers are working on several flying craft concepts for future planetary missions. To flesh out our knowledge of Mars between surface rovers and orbiters in space, researchers at the University of Arizona have proposed an experimental glider that operates without an engine and can cruise the Martian skies for days.

“You’ve got this really important, critical piece in this planetary boundary layer, like in the first few miles above the ground,” Alexandre Kling, a research scientist at NASA’s Mars Climate Modeling Center, said in a statement. pronunciation† “This is where all the exchanges between the surface and the atmosphere take place. This is where the dust is picked up and sent to the atmosphere, where trace gases are mixed, where the modulation of large-scale winds by mountain valley flows takes place. And we just don’t have a lot of data on it.”

    The team performed a tethered launch of an early version of the glider, in which it slowly descended to Earth attached to a balloon.
The team performed a tethered launch of an early version of the glider, in which it slowly descended to Earth attached to a balloon. Emily Dieckman / University of Arizona

The idea is to fill this gap with a wind-powered glider that can glide through the air when there’s enough wind, and also use a technique called dynamic ascent when the vertical wind isn’t strong enough to lift it into the air. to keep. Similar to the way birds such as albatrosses can fly on extremely long journeys, the technique takes advantage of the way higher altitudes tend to have stronger winds, allowing a craft to keep flying by changing both direction and altitude as that is necessary.

The big advantage of this method is that it doesn’t rely on solar panels that can get dusty (like the ones on InSight), or core batteries that are heavy (like those used in rovers). “These other technologies are all very limited by energy,” said one of the researchers, Adrien Bouskela. “What we propose is to simply use the energy on site. It’s kind of a leap forward in those methods of expanding missions. Because the most important question is: how can you fly for free? How can you use the wind that is there, the thermal dynamics that are there, to avoid using solar panels and being dependent on batteries that need charging?”

Gliders can be released by small satellites called CubeSats, or carried into the atmosphere by balloons. The team has tested the concept on Earth using a balloon, and this summer they plan to conduct more tests at high altitudes of 15,000 feet above sea level, where the air is thinner and more analogous to the Martian atmosphere.

The concept is detailed in a paper in Aerospace magazine.

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