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NASA Interns Test Aircraft That Could One Day Fly the Martian Skies

Aug 24, 2016 04:25 AM EDT
Ares soaring over Mars
A group of NASA interns successfully flew a prototype of an aircraft that could one day fly to Mars and send information back to Earth.
(Photo : NASA Langley Research Center / Wikimedia Commons)

Student interns at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in California successfully flew a prototype of the aircraft that could one day fly to Mars.

During the summer, a group of student interns had started the Martian plane project, which was called Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars (Prandtl-M). Another group of students continued the project and worked on the design before testing.

The boomerang-shaped glider, which was remotely piloted, was finally test-flown on Aug. 11.

"The first successful flights felt like a huge relief," John Bodylski, a mechanical engineering student at Irvine Valley College in California, said in a news release. "While we still plan to perfect the design, it is a pretty exciting feeling to realize that the aircraft is working. At first I didn't believe it and had to rewatch the footage from the flight."

Students started flying designs in the halls of the research center. Prior to the test flights, the student crew and their mentors created a steel construction launcher and tested six different flight vehicle shapes to determine which will work best.

The Prandtl-M, which will be made of fiberglass and carbon fiber, is planned to be launched from a high altitude balloon later this year. It will be released at about 100,000 feet altitude to simulate the flight conditions of the Martian atmosphere, Al Bowers, NASA Armstrong chief scientist and Prandtl-M program manager, said in a statement. The actual wingspan of the aircraft when deployed would measure 24 inches and weigh less than a pound.

"What we like about small prototypes and this student program is this is real research, real cutting edge technology development," Dave Berger, manager of education activities at Armstrong, said in a statement.

"They can work on all the major areas of aerospace engineering, such as controls, aerodynamics, structures and instrumentation encapsulated in one project. The program is small enough that we can design and fabricate very fast and we can try something that no one has ever done before. It might not be successful the first time, or the second time."

According to Bowers, the next steps will involve the integration of the airframe and autonomous systems and addressing the challenges that will result from the integration.

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