index.htm Lawrence Hargrave: Australian Aviation Pioneer


The Mars Plane

NASA To Fly Mars Plane in 2003

In July 1998 NASA offered a $299 million grant for the organisation that develops the most compelling space exploration mission.

30 organisations responded with various proposals, seven of which were directly related to furthering our exploration of Mars. The winning proposal, submitted by NASA's Ames Research Centre and Malin Space Science Systems, was for a robotic aircraft designed to fly 1,760 kilometres along the Valles Marineris on Mars.

Mission Outline

In 2003 a small re-entry vehicle will drop through the atmosphere of Mars. As parachutes slow its descent, the clam-like aeroshell will split apart, the lower section falling away to free a white package, allowing it to fall towards the surface of Mars.

As the package drops, it will begin to unfold, revealing a paird of elongated wings supporting a thin fuselage with an oversized propellor at the back. As the Martian atmosphere thickens, the wings will generate lift, and the newly-born aircraft will start to glide before the motor opowering its big propellor comes to life, providing the strange vehicle with sufficient power to be able to fly in the tenous atmosphere.

With its engine powered up, the aircraft will adjust its course and fly along the Vallis Marineris - the famous Grand Canyon of Mars. Cameras within the compact fuselage will enable scientists to obtain genuine birdseye views of the valley. Other instruments will measure the density and composition of the atmosphere within the valley, and people here on Earth will be able to watch the progress of the first tuly airborne visitor to another world.

Kitty Hawk - so named because 2003 marks the centenary of the Wright brother's first powered flight in an aeroplane - is a remarkable vehicle. Currently $50 million has been assigned to NASA's Ames Research Centre and Malin Space Science Systems to develop the vehicle. If the mission does go ahead, Kitty Hawk will revolutionise the public's perception of Mars, making it not just a planet to be photographed remotely from space, but a place we can very easily visit.

The acceptance of the project by NASA is also a personal achievement for members of the Mars Society's Steering Committee. Larry Lemke, head of advanced projects at NASA Ames, has long advocated such a mission together with Society Steering Committee members Chris MacKay and Carol Stoker, both of whom also work at NASA Ames.

The Mission

The Kitty Hawk flight will last for approximately three-and-a-half hours, during which time the aircraft will cover some 1,700 kilometres at an average altitude of 1.2 kilometres. Given the relative density of the Martain atmosphere, that's equivalent to flying some 24.5 kilometres (approx. 80,000ft) above the surface of the Earth. During the flight some 20-30 gigabits of information will be transmitted back to the orbiter vehicle used to transport the aircraft to Mars.

Kitty Hawk itself will have a wingspan of some 10 metres, and be powered by a hydrazine motor. As well as the on-board camera, the aircraft will mostly likely include instruments to measure the atmosphere and both the electrical and magnetic fields evidenced in the Valles.

Fly Me To Mars

Princeton - February 8, 1999 - NASA hopes to mark the 100th anniversy of the Wright Brothers first powered flight with announced this week it will pursue a project that will culminate in a flight of an airplane in the thin atmosphere of Mars on December 17, 2003, 100 years to the day since Kitty Hawk.

The idea for the project was proposed by Princeton University scientists, who said that achieving the feat would have great scientific as well as historic value.

"I don't know if your heart pumped as much as mine, but this is going to be an incredible achievement," NASA's Head Administrator Daniel S. Goldin told reporters.

The idea was first proposed by Edgar Choueiri, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University, in a May 1997 document he circulated among the faculty members of his department and some of his colleagues outside the university. Choueiri's idea was to commemorate the centennial of Orville and Wilbur Wright's first powered flight by flying an airplane in the Martian atmosphere around December 2003. His proposal called for a collaborative effort involving NASA, industry and academe to meet the challenge.

Princeton's MAE department communicated Choueiri's idea to Goldin. While NASA had previously considered the idea of flying a plane on Mars, the Princeton proposal of linking such a flight to the Wright flight centennial gave a framework, a timeframe and a motive for such a mission.

While the driving objective is to commemorate the centennial of one of the most momentous technological achievements in human history -- the realization of the millennia-old dream of sustained flight -- Choueiri stated in his proposal that such a challenging and ambitious mission would be replete with concrete benefits of great scientific, technological, educational and even historical value. The motivation for pursuing this potentially enthralling endeavor, he explained, stems from its capability to generate direct and spin-off benefits.

Since the Martian atmosphere is devoid of air (it is mostly carbon dioxide), the term "airplane" is not very suitable. Instead, Choueiri calls the craft an "Aresplane," in reference to Ares, the Greek name for the god Mars. The challenge of flying the Aresplane stems from the fact that the Martian atmosphere is more than 100 to 150 times thinner than that of Earth at sea level. The difficulty of flight is only a little alleviated by the fact that gravity on Mars is about 2.6 times less that on Earth.

The project would force researchers to urgently seek solutions for problems related to materials, airfoil design, dynamics and control and propulsion.

These problems correspond to research areas in which Princeton's MAE department has made numerous contributions, and a few MAE professors have been discussing technical aspects of the mission since the idea was put forward in 1997.

Aside from advances in related technologies, the project could lead to a better understanding of geological processes that shaped the red planet and its vast canyons. Scientific instruments on the Aresplane could examine the planet's surface with a resolution far exceeding that of orbiting spacecraft.

The Princeton proposal noted that this would be the first time an airplane is flown outside our planet and as such it would be a felicitous, historic and, literally, a horizon-widening tribute to a century of flight as well as a resonating statement on the continuing vitality and importance of flight to our evolution.

Other Links

AeroVironment chosen by JPL to propose design for NASA flight on Mars

Flight Plan for Mars, A

Mars Plane Proposed for Wright Brothers Centennial

Scientists aim to probe Mars by plane

Video Technologies for Mars


This is a white paper prepared for NASA Ames Research Center on a video system for a proposed mission to Mars included in the Fiscal Year 2000 NASA budget proposal. The Mars Airplane mission would send a small propeller driven airplane to Mars to fly down the Valles Marineris canyon for approximately 30 minutes. The scientific goal of this mission would be to look for sedimentation, for evidence that the Valles Marineris canyon was formed by flowing water.


One desirable goal for missions to Mars is to provide real-time or near real-time television quality full motion video of the missions, similar to the television coverage of the manned landings on the Moon, for example. This possibility has been studied in the context of a proposed mission to Mars to fly a small airplane down the Valles Marineris canyon. Video technologies were identified.

The use of MPEG (Motion Pictures Experts Group) digital video, the current state of the art in standardized commercial video products, is explored in detail. Wavelet video compression, which may offer somewhat better video compression than MPEG, is also discussed. Power, weight, and volume requirements for a video system were estimated.

Bit rate requirements, which are especially relevant for the communications link between Mars and Earth, were estimated. Technical issues and risks of video technologies in a Mars mission were explored, including space hardening issues, bit errors due to noise in deep space, and the risks and costs of custom video compression systems. The principal obstacle to video appears to be the low bit rates currently possible over communications links between Mars and Earth.

Video Technologies for Mars
John F. McGowan, Ph.D.
NASA Ames Research Center
Mail Stop 233-18
Moffett Field, CA 94035-1000
Telephone: (650) 604-0143

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