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AFRL tests Mars Flyer concept

Joe MacKrell (left) of Naval Research Laboratory and Larry Lemke of NASA Ames demonstrate the Vertical Wind Tunnel testing of the Mars Flyer Model. (Air Force photo Holly Jordan)

Joe MacKrell (left) of Naval Research Laboratory and Larry Lemke of NASA Ames demonstrate the Vertical Wind Tunnel testing of the Mars Flyer Model. (Air Force photo Holly Jordan)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Air Force Research Laboratory researchers continue to play a critical role in the future of Mars exploration.

Scientists from AFRL's Air Vehicles Aerospace Vehicle Integration and Demonstration Branch, NASA Ames Research Center, and Naval Research Laboratory met from September 18-20 to perform testing of a Mars Flyer model in AFRL's vertical wind tunnel.

The Mars Flyer is an unmanned air vehicle concept that would fly over the surface of Mars, collecting data and transmitting vital information about the Mars surface and atmosphere back to researchers on Earth. It would collect data such as evidence of water or ice just below the planet's surface, evidence of methane related processes in the atmosphere, and the structure and turbulent behavior of the atmosphere itself.

Airplanes over Mars can be just as useful, in many ways, as airplanes over the Earth.

While the concept of a Mars Flyer is not new, different designs and concepts have been tested over the years in an attempt to determine the best approach for the task.

The latest Mars Flyer concept, the Mars Advanced Technology Airplane for Deployment, Operations, and Recovery (MATADOR), is a versatile folding delta-wing vehicle. The MATADOR is designed to be deployed high above the Mars surface with wings folded in. The wings would then fold out and transition into horizontal flight.

The sturdy, folding-wing design allows the MATADOR to deploy safely through the thin Mars atmosphere with the assistance of thrusters. It also allows the vehicle to perform a more controlled landing on the Mars surface, rather than a riskier crash landing, when its flight is complete. The design saves the need for heavier vehicle packaging, thereby allowing the craft to carry more fuel or payload.

During testing, the MATADOR model was suspended in the test section, subjected to upward-blowing winds reaching 14 to 17 mph, which simulates the craft's path through the Mars atmosphere during the critical first 30 seconds after it emerges from its aeroshell. This aeroshell will be similar to that used on many Mars lander missions, including the recent Mars Exploration Rover mission.

The purpose of the test was to simulate low speed flight, similar to that which would be encountered within the Mars atmosphere and to develop flight control algorithms necessary to transition the vehicle from a vertical descent to horizontal flight.

The testing allowed researchers to make necessary adjustments to the craft and to verify computer-simulated data and information gathered from previous tests.

With the vertical wind tunnel testing complete, the MATADOR model may next undergo additional wind tunnel tests leading up to a high altitude flight test, using a helium balloon to tow the aircraft up to altitudes in excess of 100,000 feet. At these altitudes, the properties of the Earth's atmosphere are very similar to the properties of the thin Martian atmosphere at about 10,000 feet above the surface.