Subscribe free to our newsletters via your
  Mars Exploration News  

Subscribe free to our newsletters via your

Airplanes Could Unlock Mars Mysteries

Artist's concept of the ARES airplane flying over the surface of Mars. Credit: Langley Research Center
by Prachi Patel
for Astrobiology Magazine
Moffett Field CA (SPX) Oct 11, 2010
Various orbiters, landers and rovers that have explored Mars in the past three decades have revealed tantalizing evidence of the conditions for life, from frozen water at the planet's North Pole to methane plumes in the atmosphere. For atmospheric scientist Joel Levine, the evidence has made the case for flying an airplane over Mars stronger than ever.

Levine champions the ARES Mars airplane mission at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. He believes that a robotic, rocket-powered airplane is the perfect platform for unraveling the red planet's biggest mysteries. Soaring at an altitude of 1.6 kilometers, an airplane could cover hundreds of kilometers, gathering visual images and remote sensing data that it transmits back to Earth.

"A powered airplane flying a mile above the surface can obtain measurements over inaccessible parts of Mars and collect a whole bunch of data that no rover can collect," Levine says. As opposed to orbiters, meanwhile, the airplane would be close enough to the ground to get high-resolution images and chemical sensing data.

ARES, which stands for Aerial Regional-Scale Environmental Surveyor, is Levine's brainchild. He has now formed a team of 250 people, from airplane designers to mission planners to bring his vision of a robotic airplane soaring above Mars to fruition. The team has built and tested a prototype ARES airplane and they are gearing for the next NASA Mars mission solicitation.

The ARES airplane prototype is 5 meters long, with a wingspan of about 6.5 meters, and is made of a lightweight polymer-carbon composite material. It would be packed with its tail and wings folded into an aeroshell similar to the one that brought the rovers to Mars.

About 12 hours away from the surface, the carrier spacecraft would release the aeroshell, which would descend to the surface aided by a parachute. Thirty-two kilometers above the surface, the airplane would be ejected, its wings and tail would unfold and the rocket engines would ignite.

Levine is most interested in flying ARES over the mountains, craters and volcanoes in the southern highlands, where it hasn't been possible to land safely until now.

"There are some very interesting things in the southern hemisphere," Levine says. "There are regions of very high crustal magnetism, whose origin no one understands. By studying crustal magnetism, we can learn whether it will shield the surface of Mars from high-energy solar wind particles. This will help us learn more about radiation that humans on the surface will experience."

ARES would take samples of the Martian atmosphere every three minutes, helping to pinpoint the exact source of the methane plumes that have been discovered on the planet - methane on Earth is produced by living systems, but its point of origin on Mars remains a mystery. Equipped with the right instruments, the airplane also could study subsurface water and probe the ground for telltale signatures of life.

Levine first got involved with Mars airplanes in 1999. NASA's administrator at that time, Dan Goldin, had announced a competition between various NASA centers to put a lightweight, low-cost airplane on Mars. The plan was to piggyback the chosen craft aboard an Ariane rocket launched by the French space agency CNES.

The airplane flight through the Martian atmosphere was to take place on December 17, 2003 to commemorate the centennial of the Wright brothers' first powered flight.

NASA chose the Langley Research Center team to lead the effort, with Levine as the project scientist for the mission. The project was cancelled later that year for budgetary reasons, but he has since been convinced that an airplane was the way to go for Mars exploration.

Levine believes airplanes could offer an affordable and reliable way to explore Mars. Missions such as the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory, slated for 2011, may be more difficult from a technological standpoint, he says.

"An airplane is deployed in the atmosphere," he says, "so you don't have to worry about landing on rough terrain or retro-rockets and firing at precise times."

Airplanes would be ideal for observing large regions at close range, says Charles Whetsel, manager of the advanced studies and program architecture office at NASA's Mars Exploration Directorate. To date, however, he says Mars exploration has been conducted with orbiters, landers and rovers, because they typically have long lifetimes of months to years.

Indeed, Levine says ARES' fuel would only last for a two-hour flight. But in that time it could cover close to 1500 kilometers, and after its fuel is depleted, the airplane should be able to land on the ground and continue making measurements.

Besides, he stresses, airplanes would be the most reliable way to observe the planet's rugged southern region where a rover would find it difficult if not impossible to drive.

The Langley team has successfully tested deployment and flight in the Earth's atmosphere at a balloon facility in Tillamook, Oregon, using a half-scale ARES model.

They have folded and packed the airplane into a shell and deployed from a helium balloon 30 kilometers above ground. The researchers also have done a series of wind tunnel tests to validate their predictions on how ARES would fly in the Martian atmosphere.

The ARES technology is proven on Earth, says Levine, and he is confident that a Mars mission should happen within the next decade. In fact, ARES was one of four finalists for the NASA Mars Scout mission in 2002 before the Phoenix mission was chosen.

"I feel scientifically we have a unique platform and experiment," he says. "ARES is only the first step."

Share This Article With Planet Earth DiggDigg RedditReddit
YahooMyWebYahooMyWeb GoogleGoogle FacebookFacebook

Related Links
Langley Research Center
Mars News and Information at
Lunar Dreams and more

Memory Foam Mattress Review
Newsletters :: SpaceDaily :: SpaceWar :: TerraDaily :: Energy Daily
XML Feeds :: Space News :: Earth News :: War News :: Solar Energy News

Martian Moon Phobos May Have Formed by Catastrophic Blast
Rome, Italy (SPX) Sep 23, 2010
Scientists now have firm indications that the Martian satellite Phobos formed relatively near its current location via re-accretion of material blasted into Mars's orbit by some catastrophic event. Two independent approaches of compositional analyses of thermal infrared spectra, from ESA's Mars Express and NASA's Mars Global Surveyor missions, yield very similar conclusions. The re-accreti ... read more

NASA Thruster Test Aids Future Robotic Lander's Ability To Land Safely

NASA official: Moon still matters

China Scouts Moon Landing Sites

Magnetic Anomalies Shield The Moon

Slow-Motion Giants Carry Shuttles To Pad

Fuel tank for final shuttle in Florida

Shuttle ready for move to launch pad

NASA To Ship Fuel Tank For Last Planned Shuttle Flight

Glamorous spy sees Russian rocket blast off for ISS

Russian rocket blasts off carrying three astronauts to ISS

Russian manned spacecraft docks with ISS: official

Europe's Second ATV Is Prepared For Its 2011 Launch

Venus Express Finds Planet's Atmosphere a Drag

Hot Atmosphere Of Venus May Cool Planet's Interior

Venus Lightning Sparks Interest Among Scientists

Japanese Spacecraft Approaches Venus

Titan's Hazes May Hold Ingredients Of Life

Saturn's Icy Moon May Keep Oceans Liquid With Wobble

Cassini Catches Saturn Moons In Paintball Fight

Hello, Saturn Summer Solstice: Cassini's New Chapter

SMOS Water Mission Winning Battle With Interference

NASA Loosens GRIP On Atlantic Hurricane Season

NASA Partnership Sends Earth Science Data To Africa

'A-Train' Satellites Search For 770 Million Tons Of Dust In The Air

Space Experience Curacao Announces Wet Lease of XCOR Lynx Suborbital

US President Obama's National Space Policy: New Analysis Available

NASA budget approved by US Congress

CSF Applauds Historic Vote Setting NASA's New Direction

Backward Orbit In A Binary System

First Potentially Habitable Exoplanet Found

This Planet Smells Funny

Scientists looking to spot alien oceans

The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2010 - SpaceDaily. AFP and UPI Wire Stories are copyright Agence France-Presse and United Press International. ESA Portal Reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement,agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by SpaceDaily on any Web page published or hosted by SpaceDaily. Privacy Statement