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Duotone   of planeTechnology, it's often said, has made the world a smaller place. The saying is perhaps most true of the airplane, which has brought nearly every place on Earth within a day's journey of each other. Now, planes designed to fly on an alien planet might make our solar system seem like a smaller place, too.
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From Kitty Hawk to Kitty Hawk

In 1903, the Wright brothers made their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Not quite 100 years later, planetary scientists and engineers are working towards another historic first - flying a data-gathering plane on Mars.

Competing teams of scientists and engineers are currently developing Mars airplane designs for submission to NASA's Discovery Program, which seeks to study the solar system with frequent, inexpensive, low-risk projects. These "better, faster, cheaper" missions- such as the 1997 Mars Pathfinder- have a budget cap of $299 million, peanuts compared to other NASA programs. It's not much money with which to solve the considerable design challenges of flying on Mars.

Photo of Mars Surface
Planes on Mars could reveal much about the surface of the Red Planet.  

Mars' skimpy atmosphere is the biggest obstacle engineers face. Just one percent as dense as Earth's atmosphere, Martian air is as thin as Earth's air at 100,000 feet. A Mars airplane, therefore, must be specially designed to generate the lift it needs to stay aloft.

Martian air is as thin as Earth's air at 100,000 feet.

Additionally, with little data and no experience flying in Mars' carbon dioxide atmosphere, scientists were initially unsure whether flight on Mars was actually possible. Subsequent testing in Earth-bound wind tunnels has bolstered their confidence, but other problems remain. For instance, Mars has no magnetic field, making accurate navigation virtually impossible.

Though NASA currently has no plans or budget for a Mars airplane, in 2002 the Discovery Program will solicit proposals for a 2007 mission. One team including scientists from AeroVironment, the company begun by veteran inventor Paul MacCready, has designed a strong contender for this mission. Calling their project the "Kitty Hawk Glider Mission to Valles Marineris," the team hopes that their glider, should it win, will eventually give scientists a bird's eye view of the huge Valles Marineris canyon at the Martian equator.A fleet of small gliders comprises the Kitty Hawk mission, decreasing the risk, while increasing the amount of data collected.

Video Clip of Kitty Hawk Glider test flight

"Several gliders makes it a more robust mission," says team member Carlos Miralles, an aeronautical engineer at AeroVironment. "If we lose one, too bad. All our eggs aren't in one basket."

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Photos: Carlos Miralles/JPL
Video Clip: Carlos Miralles

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