Exploring Mars isn’t easy. Satellite imagery lacks detail and rovers move slowly.
But researchers at the University of Arizona say they have a better concept that would cost a fraction of those technologies: an inflatable sailplane that weighs just 11 pounds (5 kg) and sports a wingspan of 18.7 feet (570 cm), that’ll cruise high above the Martian landscape and survey from a bird’s eye view.
The clever design, available as a preprint on the arXiv database, would travel to the Red Planet on a cubesat. Then a small atmospheric entry spacecraft would bring it down to the Martian surface, where a telescopic boom would hold the sailplane up as it unfurls its rolled-up wing structure by pumping nitrogen gas into special compartments.
Most of the wing structure will be covered in a UV-sensitive material that hardens when exposed to sunlight. After about an hour of UV-curing, the sailplane will have enough structural integrity to deploy.
A cold-gas propulsion system will allow it to take to the skies at an altitude of 5,900 feet.
The sailplane could also assist other missions or even find suitable places for future human habitation on the Red Planet.
“The Mars sailplane concept proposed here provides a whole new avenue for accelerating exploration of the Martian surface at a fraction of the cost of previous Mars airplane concepts,” reads the paper.
READ MORE: Attitude Control of an Inflatable Sailplane for Mars Exploration [arXiv]
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