The newest addition to the NASA family, the Prandtl-M prototype, has just completed its first test flight. It is going to be a small glider aircraft that will be flown remotely. NASA engineers designed this machine with the help of two groups of students. It flew for the first time on 11 August 2016 at the Armstrong Flight Research Centre located in California. Rumor is that it will be able to fly in the atmosphere of Mars one day and even bring back samples. More people are getting intrigued by the possibility of maybe going to Mars one day and the actual possibility is getting closer every day. The trip to the red planet is closer than ever now that a prototype built for this purpose has actually flown. It has a wingspan of only 25 feet, a weight of around 28 pounds and airspeed of about 18 knots. Its structure is made of carbon fiber and it has a fiber glass skin.
It will be capable of not only flying in the atmosphere of Mars but it will take clear topographic pictures and land on the surface too. The pictures will tell researchers more about possible landing spaces and this will assist in determining how suitable they are. The Prandtl-M would be able to fly for about 10 minutes and by gliding it will travel the final 2000 feet to the surface of Mars. It would have a range of about 20 miles.
The first successful flight of the prototype was a huge relief to some of the engineering students from Irvine Valley College in California who helped with the project. While they are by no means done with the design and are planning some improvements to perfect it, they had to re-watch the footage from the test flight to believe what they were seeing.
The initial design was started last year with the help of another group of students. The manager of this program for students, Dave Berger, said that they like the small prototype and the student program because this is real and actual research, actual development of cutting edge technology. The students have the opportunity of working on all the major aspects of aerospace engineering like the controls, structures and instruments and aerodynamics which are all neatly put together in one project. Because the project is so small, the design and fabrication of the prototype is completed quickly and they can try things that hadn’t been tried before. These things may not be a success at first or even at the second attempt but because it is a quick project they have more time to work on more attempts.
The chief scientist at NASA Armstrong and the student program manager, Al Bowers explained that apart from working on the development of Prandtl-M the students also worked on independent systems and sensors for the guidance and navigation of the craft. The planning now includes the continued integration and development of the frame and autonomous systems and dealing with the issues that arise during their incorporation.
The students are full of confidence that the Prandtl-M and all of its systems that they themselves helped to develop and validate will soon fly in the skies of the red planet. The head of SpaceX and entrepreneur, Elon Musk, said that he is planning unmanned crafts to land on Mars as soon as 2018 and manned operations by 2030. NASA is hoping on their astronauts being on Mars in the mid-2030s.
Jan Woerner, the Director-General of the European Space agency says that the technology needed for a manned mission is at least 15 years away. In order to fly people to Mars they would need rockets and fuel that will be strong enough to lift the plane off again so they could return. Another consideration is protection from radiation for those going and also protection against the unknown mental and physical effects they may suffer. Once people are permanently settled on the moon, 3D printers may be able to print the needed items to make a round trip more of a possibility.