Tech&Innovation

Designing an airplane that can fly on Mars!

First we put a rover on Mars, then a helicopter (Ingenuity). But what about airplanes? This study describes the design of special wings that will help airplanes fly in the thin Martian atmosphere.

Until recently, no attempt had been made in the Martian atmosphere to operate an airplane. Currently, the air is much thinner on Mars than on Earth. This indicates that less than 1% of the Earth’s air pressure is present. So, if there could be adequate lift was the key source of hesitation for engineers. We’ve got the answer now. NASA’s Perseverance mission launched to Mars on July 30, 2020, carrying a small helicopter, Ingenuity, the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight in the Martian atmosphere using a pair of rotors mounted above each other and sharing the same rotation axis.

The rotor blades on Ingenuity are much larger and spin much faster than what would be needed on Earth, in order to compensate for Mars’ low-density, low-temperature, CO2-based atmosphere. To get the helicopter to take off and stay in flight, the larger blades can produce enough lift. A challenging problem, however, is achieving fixed-wing (airplane-like) flight in this setting. In order to achieve enough lift on the wings, these conditions require very high speeds.

In order to analyze the behavior of a fluid around a certain shape, the team used the SU2 flow solver, a state-of-the-art program that solves aerodynamic equations, to decide the most effective airfoil shapes for a low-altitude flight near the Mars equator.

This is a diagram of how air flows over airplane wings. This image is a cross-section (a slice), so the wing is going “into the page.” The red arrow shows the direction of the air, the green arrow shows the lift. Image Source: Simple Airfoil Streamlines by Orion 8 is licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0.

A long term goal for a potential human settlement on the Red Planet is to build a piloted Mars aircraft. Indeed, smaller aircraft models, such as those that can be difficult to reach by foot or by rover, may be helpful in providing measurements and observations over wide areas. Throughout the history of space exploration, scientists have sent rovers to Mars and it is now time to soar higher.

Categories: Tech&Innovation