NASA Hopes to Fly Plane on Mars Amid Ingenuity Helicopter's Success

NASA is hoping to one day fly a plane or glider on Mars amid the ongoing success of the Ingenuity helicopter.

Development of some kind of Mars plane has been continuing for several years with the hopes such a vehicle could collect atmospheric data or visual information. NASA experts provided more details in an Ask Me Anything session posted on Reddit, Monday.

David Berger, STEM Engagement Embed to Aeronautics at NASA's headquarters, confirmed it is possible to fly a plane on Mars, and that it would face similar challenges as Ingenuity.

Berger said: "There have been many airplane studies both within and outside of NASA. The NASA ARES Mars Airplane is one example and led to a high altitude flight test here on Earth. NASA Interns are working on a Mars glider concept."

One Reddit user asked how engineers would go about flying a plane on the Red Planet. Shannah Withrow-Maser, Mars Science Helicopter Vehicle Systems Lead, replied that "almost anything is possible."

Withrow-Maser said there were a number of challenges facing planes on Mars that a helicopter can more easily overcome, including that a helicopter is able to travel more slowly and also doesn't require a runway.

The systems lead added: "Remember, the air is only one percent as dense on Mars as on Earth, so generating enough speed is challenging for a typical aircraft. Because of the limited runway situation, some ideas that have been suggested are dropping a glider from a large vehicle or using a vehicle with both rotors and wings that could transition, but it's difficult from a controls and lift perspective to accomplish the transition in the Mars environment."

Indeed, engineers at NASA's Langley Research Center proposed a Mars Flyer Concept in 2017 that did have both wings and rotors, and showed it flying in a YouTube video, seen below.

Meanwhile, the glider concept referred to by Berger is known as the Prandtl-M aircraft, or Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars.

NASA provided an update into the research of the Mars plane in June 2020, when Version 6.0 was built out of resin, fiberglass and carbon fiber. It was the second of three vehicles to be researched.

The glider, which had a wingspan of 13 inches, was dropped from a larger model plane from a height of more than 300 feet. Eventually all three models will be dropped from a weather balloon at a height of around 100,000 feet to simulate how they perform in the thin atmosphere of Mars.

NASA said: "A Prandtl-M could be the first aircraft to fly on Mars and several could be used in a swarm to collect atmospheric and visual information to guide decisions regarding future manned missions to the nearest planet to Earth."

NASA glider
A Prandtl-M Mars plane prototype flying in 2017. NASA scientists have said it would be possible to fly a glider on Mars. Lauren Hughes/NASA