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Flying 100,000 feet above the Oregon coast last week, a new kind of aircraft demonstrated the readiness of robotic airplane technology for Mars exploration.
The MarsFlyer, designed and manufactured by Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation, is a one-half scale prototype of a NASA aircraft that may one day soar over the red planet returning unique science knowledge on Mars’ atmosphere, surface, and interior. Today’s flight was the first in a series of high-altitude tests confirming the aircraft’s ability to deploy its wings and tail, and demonstrate aerodynamic performance.
Led by the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., Aurora is part of a team of industry, academia, and national laboratories working for the past three years to prepare robotic aircraft technology for scientific application on Mars.
Attached to a high-altitude balloon, the MarsFlyer began its flight at 10:15 am PDT on September 19, 2002 with its wings and tail folded underneath, simulating its storage position during the trip to Mars. After reaching a height of almost 19 miles, the prototype Mars airplane separated from the balloon at approximately 11:49 am, unfolded, and completed a ninety minute, pre-programmed flight path. The airplane was controlled throughout its flight by an Athena Technologies GS-111 flight control system, http://www.athenati.com. The balloon was launched from GSSL, Inc., in Tillamook, Ore., 85 miles west of Portland. The plane returned to the same airport from which it was launched and landed without damage at 1:28 pm.
Mars airplane engineers and scientists said today’s test is a tremendous success.
Aurora project manager for the MarsFlyer, Jean-Charles Lede, said that a preliminary analysis of the flight data shows the deployment sequence went flawlessly and the subsequent flight was smooth and stable matching preflight predictions. “The flight could not have gone better,” Lede added. “The performance matched our models very well.”
“Successful flight testing in a Mars-like environment is a critical milestone for this technology,” said Dr. Robert Braun, a NASA Langley systems engineer. “The test summarizes several years worth of design, analysis, and ground testing and clearly shows that this science platform is ready for use in a Mars flight project.”
Dr. James Head, professor of geological sciences at Brown University and one of several scientists guiding this technology development effort agreed. “On Mars, this airplane’s unique vantage point and regional-scale survey capability will provide a wealth of fundamental new scientific information that complements and extends the measurements available from previous Mars missions,” stated Head. “The science return will be profound and inspiring.”
Dr. Joel S. Levine, a NASA Langley atmospheric scientist, added, “Atmospheric measurements available from this airplane will help us understand the chemical and evolutionary relationships between water in the Mars atmosphere, at the surface, and within the crust.”
The NASA Langley team is planning more analysis and testing in 2003 including a second high-altitude test to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ historic flight on December 17. Flight on Mars could be as early as 2008.
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