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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Kitty Hawk to Kitty Hawk
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.
on Mars could reveal much about the surface of the Red
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.
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.
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.
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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Video Clip: Carlos Miralles