Prototype of a Martian plane gets test flight in California

A group of college students conducted a successful test flight of a prototype aircraft that might one day fly in the Martian atmosphere.

A group of students at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in California test flew a pretty special tiny glider on August 11.

It’s called the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars — or Prandtl-M for short. The remotely piloted drone is a first draft of a vehicle that could one-day help explore the Martian surface in greater detail.

The name is an homage to famed German engineer Ludwig Prandtl who did pioneering work in the field of aerodynamics.

“The first successful flights felt like a huge relief,” said John Bodylski, a mechanical engineering student at Irvine Valley College in California. “While we still plan to perfect the design, it is a pretty exciting feeling to realize that the aircraft is working. At first I didn’t believe it and had to rewatch the footage from the flight.”

Before the successful test flight, the student crew and their mentors devised a steel construction launcher and tested six different flight vehicle shapes to determine which worked best. The project is both an educational experience and a way to help shape and validate designs for a real future mission to Mars.

“We could give them the answers, but we give them the room to make their own discoveries and their own mistakes,” said Robert “Red” Jensen, who is the Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems chief pilot and master technician for the Dale Reed Subscale Flight Research Lab.

Now that they know the drone will fly, students on the team will continue development and integration of the airframe and autonomous systems.

NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s — all part of the space program’s Journey to Mars initiative.

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