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University of Arizona’s aerospace experts develop technology to uncover Mars’ secrets

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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) – A team at the University of Arizona is testing an aircraft that could uncover Mars’ secrets.

The aerospace experts have teamed up with a NASA planetary scientist to develop technology that could explore untouched regions of the Red Planet.

Reed Spurling is an aerospace and mechanical engineering major at the University of Arizona.

He’s part of a team of engineers who has outfitted a model air plane with a camera and flight, temperature and gas sensors.

“The ultimate goal is to have a vehicle that can fly above the surface of Mars gathering data, doing science for an extended period of time,” Spurling said.

Spurling said the motorless plane will rely on wind patterns for lift; an idea of dynamic soaring from albatross and frigate birds, which can fly for months without landing.

“So, they are gaining velocity as they are diving. After they turn around again and go back into the wind, they are gaining energy,” Spurling said.

The team believes the wind-reliant aircraft could help overcome the obstacles currently facing orbiters and rovers.

“Fuel can run out, batteries can always run down, and if it’s nighttime for example, you might not always, for example, be able to recharge the solar panels on a vehicle,” Spurling said.

Which is exactly what happened in January, when a large dust storm, nearly twice the size of the United States, covered the southern hemisphere of Mars.

NASA reported its Insight Lander went into “safe mode” to conserve battery power after dust prevented sunlight from reaching the solar panels.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter also postponed flights until conditions improved.

Even when vehicles are functioning properly there are certain areas of the Martian atmosphere they just cannot reach.

“What this could do is fill that gap between the rover and the orbiter and actually fly in the mid-level of the Mars’ atmosphere, and directly sample the gases there that could be potential signs of life,” Spurling said.

Jekan Thanga, an assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Arizona, said the current instruments, like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, have mapped the surface of Mars.

“In fact we have better surface pictures of Mars than Earth. That gives you great orbital picture, you have institute data, institute pictures from the rovers of small 20-30 km region, but that is still less than one percent of Mars. The rest of the 99 percent is still unexplored,” Thanga said.

Thanga said a sail plane like this could access some of the most exciting environments on Mars, like the rugged regions, mountains valleys, craters and cliffs, which could hold clues to the Red Planet’s past.

“Cliffs on earth are where some of the first reptile fossils were found, dinosaur fossils were found, and with Mars we really haven’t reached those places.

Even when the wind stops and this sail plane lands, Thanga said it will continue to gather data.

“Then it can be transformed into a weather station as part of its second life,” Thanga said.

The team said the sailplanes will be packaged in miniature satellites called CubeSats.

Once the planes are released, they could unfold or inflate to their full size.

The team hopes NASA will fund the mission and allow the technology to be incorporated on a large-scale Mars mission already in development.

Learn more about this project, here.

Copyright 2022 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.

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