This solar-powered robotic plane could be NASA’s new way to explore Mars

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Last week, the Ingenuity Mars helicopter made its final flight, far exceeding expectations for a mission that began nearly three years ago. NASA may now be considering launching a fixed-wing aircraft into the skies of the Red Planet.

In 2021, the Perseverance rover landed on Mars carrying under its belly a small helicopter named Ingenuity. The twin-rotor craft was a demonstrator intended to test whether a vehicle could fly in Martian air, which is only about 1% as dense as our atmosphere on Earth.

It has become the first plane to perform controlled, powered flight on another planet.

Ingenuity not only proved that it could fly and be controlled from Earth, but it also far exceeded expectations. complete 72 flights spanning almost three years when only five flights were planned. The small helicopter that was able to make its last flight this week, when one of its rotor blades hit the ground and was damaged.

WATCH: NASA Administrator Bill Nelson Announces End of Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

But even though the helicopter showed that flight is possible on Mars, it only managed short jumps of a few hundred meters at a time, flying about five meters above the ground. This is because the helicopter’s blades must provide both lift and thrust to move forward, which requires a lot of energy to fly.

Winged planes are more efficient because the engines only need to provide forward thrust while the wings do the lifting, giving the plane a much greater range.

A new concept, recently funded through the NASA program Innovative advanced concepts (NIAC), proposes a vehicle capable of doing just that on Mars.

Since 1998, the NIAC program has provided funding for innovative, unconventional but technologically feasible ideas at the start of development. Although not all winning concepts come to fruition, many current NASA projects involve ideas funded by this program, including Ingenuity.

An illustration of the Ingenuity aircraft on the Martian surface
Ingenuity became the first aircraft to operate and fly on another world. (NASA/Getty Images)

This year’s winners, announced earlier this month, will receive up to US$175,000 in grants from the space agency. The projects include a best way to measure cosmological distancesa way to collect a sample of Venus returnAnd teeming spaceship to explore Proxima Centauri.

Another winning concept is called Mars Air and Ground Intelligence Explorer (MAGGIE), and hopes to be the first fixed-wing aircraft to fly on Mars. MAGGIE is unmanned, solar-powered, double-winged and driven by 14 electric motors. The propellers can be tilted downward for vertical takeoff, then pointed forward for horizontal flight.

The Martian plane’s designers suggest it could fly much further and higher than Ingenuity, covering 179 kilometers per Martian day at an altitude of 1,000 meters. Over the course of a Martian year, which spans about two Earth years, the craft could travel 16,046 kilometers, meaning it could virtually go anywhere on the planet.

An illustrated side view of an airplane with the Martian landscape in the background.  The plane is equipped with numerous solar panels covering its four wings.
This electric plane, called MAGGIE, would be powered by solar energy, and capable of vertical takeoffs and landings on Mars. (Ge-Cheng Zha/Coflow Jet, LLC)

During its flights, the plane could measure the chemistry of the Martian atmosphere, particularly looking for traces of methane, which could be produced by life (although there are other non-biological methods of producing this gas). Designers also suggest the craft could trace the planet’s magnetic field, which is much weaker than Earth’s, and could search for water ice beneath the surface.

A plane like Ingenuity or the proposed MAGGIE offers ways to explore a place like Mars that other methods cannot. It offers a view that bridges the gap between the elevated perspective of a satellite and the view from the ground.

The extended range of a winged aircraft also makes it possible to explore regions considered too rugged and dangerous for wheeled rovers.

A small helicopter sits in the center, surrounded by dusty terrain.
In this NASA image, the experimental Martian helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars on April 19, 2021. (The Associated Press)

The landers that have landed on Mars so far have been sent to safer, relatively flat regions. But Mars has some of the most spectacular landscapes in the solar system that have remained inaccessible.

Imagine flying along the slopes of a volcano higher than Mount Everestthrough a canyon as long as the continental United States with steep walls rising several kilometers high. Or over snowy ice caps at the North and South Poles.

Although the MAGGIE project is still in its early stages, the idea of ​​flying over exotic Martian terrain would certainly capture the public imagination and provide a detailed study of potential landing sites when humans eventually land there.

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