NASA begins prototyping first airplane to fly over Mars

NASA has revealed a new prototype design for an aircraft that will eventually be the first to fly on Mars in the 2020's. Dubbed the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars, or "Prandtl-m" for short, features a flying-wing design and is said to be ready for testing later this year via launching from a balloon at an altitude of 100,000 feet to simulate Mars' atmosphere.

The aircraft is far from being complete at this point, but its initial specifications give it a wingspan of 24 inches and a weight of less than a pound when in Mars' gravity. It is expected to be made of a composite material like carbon fiber or fiberglass.

Once it's time for the aircraft to go to Mars, it will be folded up and deploy from a 3U CubeSat, which will be part of a future rover sent to the planet. A 3U consists of three CubeSats, which are miniature research satellites that measure around 4 inches in each dimension, stacked together. NASA says the Prandtl–m will be "part of the ballast that would be ejected from the aeroshell that takes the Mars rover to the planet."

From there, the plan is have the aircraft glide across the terrain and land, mapping out the land. NASA hopes it could help find potential landing sites for a future mission with astronauts. The aircraft could send scientists high-resolution photos of the terrain, allowing them to pinpoint a good location.

As the rover's aeroshell hits Mars' atmosphere, the Prandtl–m will deploy and fly the last 2,000 feet to the planet's surface. NASA says it will fly for roughly 10 minutes, and can cover a range of about 20 miles. The plan now is to test the aircraft at least three times on Earth, with summer college students getting involved in the design and building process.