Aerospace engineering doctoral student Adrien Bouskela (left) and aerospace and mechanical engineering professor Sergey Shkarayev hold an experimental sailplane. They hope to one day send a custom version of a similar plane to Mars.
Credit: Emily Dieckman/College of Engineering/University of Arizona

Winging over Mars via motorless sailplane, even taking deep dives at Valles Marineris – the spectacular, huge canyon system of the Red Planet.

That’s the vision of a team of University of Arizona engineers, imagineering an 11-pound craft that can soar over the Martian surface for days at a time, using only wind energy for propulsion.

Credit: Adrien Bouskela, et al.

A Mars sailplane would contain a custom-designed array of navigation sensors, a camera, as well as temperature and gas sensors to harvest data about the Martian atmosphere and landscape.

The sailplane would exploit atmospheric wind gradients for dynamic soaring, and slope/thermal updrafts for static soaring.

Credit: Adrien Bouskela, et al.

Low-cost secondary payload

Packaged in CubeSats and on release, sailplanes would either unfold, like origami, or inflate, like high-tech pool floaties, then rigidize at their full size. The sailplane concept, unlike previous proposals for Mars, would be a low-cost secondary payload, price-tagged at $100 million or less.

After making its flight for days at a time, a sailplane would make a soft belly landing on the Martian surface and transform into a meteorological station, continuing to relay information about the atmosphere.

Equations of motion for the sailplanes were combined with wind profiles from the Mars Regional Atmospheric Modeling System (MRAMS) for two representative sites: Jezero crater, Perseverance’s landing site, and over a section of the Valles Marineris canyon.

The team conducted a tethered launch of an early version of the sailplane, in which it descended slowly to Earth attached to a balloon.
Credit: University of Arizona

Close-to-wall flying

Numerical results demonstrated that Mars sailplanes can do close-to-wall flying passes over locations inaccessible by conventional landers and rovers, thus providing a unique, close-up oblique viewing of the canyons and their stratigraphy.

This summer, the university team will test experimental planes at about 15,000 feet above sea level, where Earth’s atmosphere is thinner and flight conditions are more akin to those on Mars.

The research – “Mars Exploration Using Sailplanes” — has been published in the monthly journal, Aerospace.

To read the full paper, go to:

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