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UA engineers design Mars glider

Mars is host to several rovers, orbiters and even a helicopter.

But rovers are limited by rugged terrain, orbiters are confined to space and atmospheric data remains spotty at best.

A prototype sailplane developed at University of Arizona's Micro Air Vehicles Laboratory and  described in the journal Aerospace could avoid around these limitations by gliding through Mars's thin atmosphere and maneuvering like an albatross to catch air currents.

"A vehicle like this will provide good data on very rough terrain on Mars that is currently inaccessible using rovers and things like that because of difficult landing conditions, and can also give us a lot of very good information about the atmosphere," said lead author Adrien Bouskela, who worked on the sailplane as part of his dissertation research.

Undergraduate researcher and self-described "Adrian's minion" Reed Spurling agreed.

"There's this whole part of the Martian atmosphere that hasn't really been explored before. And there could be any number of things going on in that part of the atmosphere that we don't know about. Those things could not only be relevant to science, but also relevant to future human missions," he said.

Bouskela says the idea stemmed partly from the limits propulsion places on the Ingenuity Mars helicopter and many proposed fixed-wing aircraft.

"So what if we could just get rid of the propulsion system entirely and use the winds instead?" he said.

In theory, the plane would travel to Mars in a briefcase-sized package to later inflate or unfold like origami.

The designers are also considering having the glider enter the Martian atmosphere via balloon so that it can descend slowly and find ideal conditions before beginning its glide. Once it's on the ground, it'll stay there. But the team plans to use the grounded glider as part of a network that monitors the Red Planet's weather.

The group is currently testing a prototype by flying it at higher and higher elevations, though nothing approaching the conditions of Mars's whisper-thin atmosphere, which is 100th the density of Earth's.

Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.