Researchers are developing a glider designed to fly above Mars

Researchers are developing a glider designed to fly above Mars

American researchers have developed a lightweight glider designed to fly above Mars and collect data.

The unpowered aircraft is built to use the natural wind patterns around Mars to run for days at a time.

The aircraft is equipped with flight, temperature and gas sensors, as well as cameras. It is designed to collect data on the atmosphere and physical structures of the Red Planet.

A working model of the glider was developed by engineers at the University of Arizona. The team is associated on the project with Alexandre Kling, researcher at the American space agency NASA.

Kling said in a statement that the glider can be a valuable resource in helping NASA survey an important area above the surface of Mars.

“You have this really important and critical piece in the planetary boundary layerlike in the first few miles above the ground,” he said. “That’s where all the exchange between the surface and the atmosphere happens.”

Kling works at NASA’s Mars Climate Modeling Center. The center develops models designed to study current and past weather and climate activity on Mars.

The Mars gliders will contain a series of custom-designed navigation sensors, as well as a camera and temperature and gas sensors to gather information about the Martian atmosphere and geological landscape.  (Image credit: Emily Dieckman/College of Engineering)

The Mars gliders will contain a series of custom-designed navigation sensors, as well as a camera and temperature and gas sensors to gather information about the Martian atmosphere and geological landscape. (Image credit: Emily Dieckman/College of Engineering)

Kling said this area, or zone, above the planet is where dust is picked up and sent into the atmosphere. This is also where the gaseous elements are mixed. So far, Kling said, very little data is available on this area.

Researchers describe their progress on the glider in a study that recently appeared in the publication Aerospace.

The team notes that there are currently eight active spacecraft orbiting Mars and three rover vehicles also exploring the surface. But these research vehicles are limited in their ability to collect data from the area just above the surface of Mars.

NASA has experimented with a small helicopter on Mars, the Ingenuity. So far, ingenuity tests have been successful. And such an aircraft could perform operations similar to those for which the glider is designed. But the experimental helicopter can only fly for a few minutes at a time and can only reach heights of around 12 meters.

“These other technologies have all been very energy limited,” says the study’s lead author, Adrien Bouskela. He is a PhD candidate in engineering at the University of Arizona.

Bouskela said the glider’s goal is to use natural wind flows around Mars to avoid having to use motor vehicles. “The main question is: how to fly for free? How can you use the wind that is there? Bouskela asked. He noted that other research vehicles generally depend on the sun’s power and need Battery operate.

The engineering team performed a tethered launch of an early version of the glider, in which it slowly descended to Earth attached to a balloon.  (Image credit: University of Arizona)

The engineering team performed a tethered launch of an early version of the glider, in which it slowly descended to Earth attached to a balloon. (Image credit: University of Arizona)

The researchers say the glider they have developed is lightweight, inexpensive and powered entirely by wind. The current model has a wingspan of about three and a half meters. The team says the plane is designed primarily to use vertical winds blowing over Mars.

But the plane will also be able to use a method called dynamic soaring, the engineers said. This method allows an aircraft to gain energy by repeatedly crossing borders between air masses of different strength levels. This type of wind activity is known to be common on Mars.

Current Mars explorers have primarily captured images and data from flat, sandy areas of the planet where vehicles could land safely. But the researchers say the gliders “would be able to explore new areas by Take (the) advantage of the way the wind patterns gap around geological formations such as canyons and volcanoes.

The team performed tests of the glider by attaching it to a balloon floating in the sky. Further tests are planned for this summer when researchers are expected to send the plane up to around 4,500 meters in altitude. They also plan to extend their research to mathematical modeling for possible flight plans based on Mars climate data.

I am Brian Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from the University of Arizona and NASA.

Quiz – Researchers develop a glider designed to fly above Mars

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words in this story

patternnm a regular and repeated way in which something happens

layer nm a quantity of substance covering a surface

batterynm a device that supplies and stores electricity for certain electronic devices

vertical adj. pointing up from a surface

bordernm a line that divides two areas or forms an edge around an area

enjoy v. use the right things in a particular situation

gapv. change or make a change of place, position or direction

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