Image: NASA plane on Mars
NASA
An artist's conception shows the ARES airplane flying over the Martian surface. NASA had considered sending such a vehicle to the Red Planet, but now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has picked up the idea for surveillance of earthly hot spots.
By Guest contributor
updated 11/15/2010 2:34:55 PM ET 2010-11-15T19:34:55

The Wright Brothers flew their first successful powered flight from Kitty Hawk, N.C., over 100 years ago. Ever since that first lift off, aviation has provided explorers with a new tool for discovery and a better way to see the land below.

Now, one scientist hopes to bring flight to Mars and explore what rovers and orbiters have left behind.

Atmospheric scientist Joel Levine believes bringing an unmanned aircraft to Mars would tap into an unknown area where orbiters would be too far to reach and rovers too short to detect.

The airplane, known as the Aerial Regional-Scale Environment Surveyor (ARES) will enable scientists to remotely sample a wide range of chemicals for multiple studies. Levine says the opportunities to explore more of what Mars has to offer will be accomplished through flight.

"There are a whole class of measurements that haven't been obtained yet, that can only be obtained by flying about a mile above the surface and making measurements continually as you fly," Levine told Discovery News.

According to Levine, the unmanned airplane will be able to detect chemical compositions and chemical reactions in the Mars atmosphere. What they are searching for are gases produced by biological activity: gases like methane, ammonia and nitrous oxide.

Because these compounds are short-lived, Levine says these chemicals need to be discovered more effectively before they are destroyed by the Martian environment.

"They don't build up enough in the atmosphere to be seen from orbit. So you actually have to fly through them. You can't make those measurements from 200 miles above Mars," he said.

The idea of an airplane scanning the Mars landscape has another advantage — it can dodge rough terrain.

There are large mountains, volcanoes like Olympus Mons, deep valleys and canyons like Valles Marineris. One particular region in the southern hemisphere of Mars is saturated with impact craters, prohibiting rovers from traveling great distances. With an airplane, scientists can fly right over.

"What the airplane gives is mobility, because we can travel 500 miles an hour anywhere," he said.

The ARES plane continues to be modified at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Here, the plane is tested in wind tunnels to withstand winds of up to 100 mph. Scientists have also taken into consideration the common dust storms on Mars.

"I am not worried about winds because we have simulated strong winds in our wind tunnel experiments. I am worried about dust storms because of the impact it may have on the visibility of the photographs we take," he said.

The idea of sending a robotic airplane to Mars was first conceived about ten years ago. Levine contacted several aeroengineers and wondered if an airplane could fly through the atmosphere of Mars.

At the time, his peers thought he was joking. Now, he has a team who are developing and improving an airplane that could one day scan the Martian landscape.

If the airplane is approved, it will be launched on a Delta IV rocket and arrive at the Red Planet nine months later.

12 hours before the spacecraft arrives in Mars orbit, the aeroshell that contains the ARES plane will be released and guided toward the planet. The aeroshell has the same thermal heating tiles as the space shuttle and will allow for frictional heating once the capsule enters the Mars atmosphere at 18,000 mph.

Once the parachute is deployed, the aeroshell breaks away exposing ARES to the Martian atmosphere for the first time. At about 20 miles above the surface, a spring ejects the airplane from its shell causing the wings to open and the rocket engine to automatically ignite. (Visit the ARES project site to view artist impressions of aircraft deployment.)

ARES will begin its flight through the Mars atmosphere about a mile above the surface.

The aircraft will be powered by rocket propellant, which is stored during flight in special tanks. Levine says once the fuel is used up the airplane cannot sustain flight. ARES will be pre-programmed to land on Mars. Once ARES has landed, it will act as a stationary laboratory collecting data and other valuable information.

The airplane will transmit data to the spacecraft orbiting above. The spacecraft has a powerful antenna acting as a relay between Mars and Earth. In the event that there's a communication problem, the airplane could utilize other satellites orbiting the planet.

ARES could be the next step in sending humans to Mars but the key goal for the airplane is to find gas produced by living microorganisms. Levine says it's what's in these gases that could hint at extraterrestrial life.

"We are interested in looking for the fingerprint of life by looking for gases that are only produced by living systems," he said.

The time frame to send ARES to Mars depends on when NASA approves the project. Levine thinks it will take between four to five years once authorization is approved for the airplane to explore the skies of Mars.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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