The huge success of the Ingenuity Martian helicopter has proven that it is possible to explore other planets from the air, and researchers are working on various flying craft concepts for future planetary missions. To complement their knowledge of Mars between rovers on the surface and orbiters in space, researchers at the University of Arizona have proposed an experimental glider that operates without an engine and that can float through the Martian air for days.

“You have this really important, critical part in this planetary boundary layer, like in the first few kilometers above the ground,” said Alexander Kling, a researcher at NASA’s Mars Climate Modeling Center, in statement. “This is where all the exchanges between the surface and the atmosphere take place. This is where dust is collected and sent into the atmosphere, where trace gases mix, where the modulation of large-scale winds by mountain valley streams occurs. And we just don’t have a lot of data on that.

The team performed a tethered launch of an early version of the glider, in which it descended slowly to Earth attached to a balloon. Emily Dickman / University of Arizona

The idea is to fill that gap with a wind glider that can glide through the air when there’s enough wind, and also use a technique called dynamic lift when the vertical wind isn’t strong enough to keep it airborne. Similar to how birds such as albatrosses can soar on extremely long journeys, the technique takes advantage of the way higher altitudes tend to have stronger winds, allowing the craft to continue flying by changing both direction as well as height as required.

The big advantage of this method is that it doesn’t rely on solar panels that can get dusty (like those on InSight) or nuclear batteries that are heavy (like those used in rovers). “All these other technologies are very energy limited,” said one of the researchers, Adrien Buschella. “What we are proposing is simply to use the energy on site. This is kind of a leap forward in these mission expansion methods. Because the main question is: How can you fly for free? How can you use the wind that’s there, the thermal dynamics that’s there, to avoid using solar panels and relying on batteries that have to be charged?”

Gliders can be launched from small satellites called CubeSats or carried into the atmosphere by balloons. The team has conducted a test of the concept on Earth using a balloon, and this summer they plan to conduct more tests at high altitudes of 15,000 feet above sea level, where the air is thinner and more similar to the atmosphere on Mars.

The concept is detailed in a paper in Aerospace magazine.

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