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NASA Mars Exploration Program
Mars Exploration Program


Exploring Mars from the Air

Airplane Explores Mars
Over one hundred years ago, in 1903, human flight on Earth began with the Wright Brothers' epic flight at Kitty Hawk. Today, scientists and engineers hope to fly a Mars airplane sometime in the next decade. Current research is underway to design an airplane that could navigate on its own without human pilots. These airplanes would be able to gather better images of the surface and cover more territory than current orbiter or rover technologies allow.

Because the Martian atmosphere is so thin, taking off from the ground would require very big wings or a very fast take-off. One solution to this problem is to have the airplane drop off an entry vehicle as it is coming into the Martian sky. As the plane drops off, the wings would unfold and it would start flying, powered either by batteries or by gliding through the air. A likely place to fly airplanes would be in valleys or other interesting places where there is a lot to see over great distances.

Although this flight would be relatively short (less than an hour), and shorter than a balloon flight, an airplane is more controllable and can be directed to closely approach areas of scientific interest. To receive even more data from an airplane, engineers are also engaged in further research that will give them insight into how to make a Mars airplane stay aloft for longer periods of time.