Soaring Above Mars Someday
The atmosphere on Mars is just 2% that found on earth, that is until you get up into the stratosphere, where the air is so thin that conventional air-breathing engines don't work. It the regime of recreation engines and rocket thrusters... and, it's hoped, a tiny, two man sailplane/glider.
Designed by NASA test pilot Einar Enevoldson, an Icelander, the Perlan2 (Icelandic for 'pearl'), is the composite craft built to soar to a record 90,000 ft this coming June above the Argentine Andes, where stratospheric mountain waves are thought to propagate up to 130,000 ft and generate winds at more than 260 kt (300 mph).
The goal of the project, beyond setting aerospace records, is to better understand the flight dynamics of aircraft operating in atmospheric conditions similar to Mars. The two-man crew will fly in a pressurized cabin, breathing recycled air. While on Earth, they can be launched by propeller-driving towplane, how future aircraft might get airborne on the Red Planet remains an engineering challenge. What atmosphere there is is made up mostly of carbon dioxide. Still there is enough there for the planet's weather to churn up dust devils and erode rock.
The Perlan2's 25m (84ft) wings are needed to support the craft at what are considered "sub-orbital" altitudes. Similar wings will be needed for Mars, though the challenge of how to control them needs to be proven, as well as how to launch such future craft. Presumably, some form of reaction/thrusters will be used. Since Mar's 'air' is mostly CO2, it could be compressed and used for attitude control. Launch could be achieved by an electric catapult, powered by either solar or nuclear energy, both of which currently power the surprisingly long-lived Mars rovers today. Last month, the Opportunity rover has spent 12 years exploring the Meridiani Planum. It was only designed to operate for 90 days.
According to Forbes, Perlan 2 has an empty weight of only 1100 pounds, but will be equipped with "high altitude radar; instrumentation and lighting for night flying; a few scientific instruments and cameras to record data and basic ground-communications equipment." Crew safety is assure by a pair of ballistic recovery parachutes.
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