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A Drone Airplane for Mars? Way-Out Red Planet Ideas Are Taking Flight

Will drone gliders fly over Mars? Is it feasible to build a Red Planet habitat? When can NASA start sending Mars-o-nauts? Find out what's in the air.

NASA has been talking about sending airplanes to Mars for more than a decade, but the revolution in small satellites and drone airplanes just might turn the concept into a reality at last.

If the plan being hatched at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center works out, a folded-up glider could take a piggyback ride to the Red Planet in the 2022-2024 time frame, inside a spacecraft that would also carry a Mars rover.

During the cruise to Mars, the plane's fuselage and its 2-foot-wide (60-centimeter-wide) wings would be folded up inside a 3U CubeSat receptacle, which is about as big as a loaf of bread. A similarly sized satellite held the LightSail solar sail experiment that went through a successful orbital tryout last month.

"The aircraft would be part of the ballast that would be ejected from the aeroshell that takes the Mars rover to the planet," Al Bowers, NASA Armstrong's chief scientist, explained in a news release. "It would be able to deploy and fly in the Martian atmosphere, and glide down and land."

During the roughly 10-minute flight, the glider could snap high-resolution images of the terrain over a stretch of 20 miles (32 kilometers) and transmit the pictures back to Earth. Such imagery could help scientists determine the suitability of a given site for a future astronaut mission, Bowers said.

Related: NASA Plans to Send CubeSats to Mars

A prototype for the airplane, known as Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars, or Prandtl-m, is to be tested later this year during a high-altitude balloon mission. The Prandtl-m craft would be sent up either from Tucson in Arizona or from Tillamook in Oregon, and released at an altitude of 100,000 feet — where Earth's atmosphere is about as dense as Mars'.

A follow-up balloon flight would test the CubeSat deployment technology, and if that test goes well, yet another prototype would be sent up by a suborbital sounding rocket. That test calls for releasing the CubeSat at about 450,000 feet and deploying the airplane at 110,000 to 115,000 feet.

"If the Prandtl-m completes a 450,000-foot drop, then I think the project stands a very good chance of being able to go to NASA Headquarters and say we would like permission to ride to Mars with one of the rovers," Bowers said.

The idea of sending a drone glider to Mars represents just one small step in a larger effort to send humans to Mars — and there are lots of ideas about how to do it. Here are some of the latest Red Planet rumblings:

Report gives Mars One a boost

The Mars One plan to send citizen astronauts on one-way trips to the Martian surface has come in for a lot of criticism, but on Wednesday, the Dutch-based venture released an independent report saying that it's possible to build habitats to sustain the settlers.

The report from Paragon Space Development Corp. lays out the design for a system that could extract water and oxygen from Martian soil — and recycle much of the waste water that's generated by the crew.

Building a habitat capable of supporting life on Mars is "an attainable goal," Grant Anderson, Paragon's president and CEO, said in a news release. "If the will and the means are provided, we will see humans begin to explore and even colonize other planets in our lifetime."

The report comes in the wake of an MIT study that concluded Mars One's plans to build a Red Planet habitat were not feasible unless new technologies could be developed. In addition to the questions about technical feasibility, Mars One faces the challenge of raising the billions of dollars that would be required for trips to Mars — even if they're only one-way.

Strategy for Mars trips in the 2030s

While Mars One says it's aiming to land humans on Mars starting in 2027, NASA has a more extended timeline for Red Planet exploration. The space agency is working toward a goal of sending astronauts to Mars and its moons starting in the 2030s. But is even that timeline realistic in an age of tight budgets?

In April, a panel of scientists and engineers provided the broad outlines of a mission architecture that could get crews onto the Martian moon Phobos in 2033, onto the Martian surface for a short stay in 2039, and a yearlong mission in 2043 — all while staying within what's expected to be NASA's budgets during that time frame. This week, the full report was published as an article in the journal New Space. It will be freely available to download until July 29.

The report assumes that NASA will go ahead with the development of its Orion deep-space crew vehicle and heavy-lift Space Launch System, as well as a deep-space habitat, a lander with an ascent vehicle, and a space tug that would take advantage of solar electric propulsion.

"I think we can build a consensus around a long-term 'Humans to Mars' program, provided that we acknowledge cost constraints and act accordingly by limiting our appetite for new technology and by pacing the missions to meet our budget," Scott Hubbard, a former NASA official who is now a Stanford professor as well as New Space's editor-in-chief, said in an editorial accompanying the report.

Visions of Mars are on the rise

In his editorial, Hubbard referred to two high-profile movies that feature human missions to Mars: "The Martian," which stars Matt Damon and premieres in October; and "Out of this World," a film in development that has signed up Asa Butterfield ("Ender's Game") as its leading actor.

While you're waiting for the movies to come out, you can either read the novel on which "The Martian" is based, written by Andy Weir; or a thin little volume titled "How We'll Live on Mars," in which Stephen Petranek lays out a scenario for a Mars settlement in 2027.

Petranek traces the history of our Martian aspirations, going back to the era of Wernher von Braun and looking ahead to the era of billionaire-backed space programs. Weir, meanwhile, lays out a human-against-nature story that ranks right up there with "Robinson Crusoe." Either book will whet your appetite for future visions of Mars.

The authors of "A Minimal Architecture for Human Journeys to Mars" are Hoppy Price, John Baker and Firouz Naderi of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.