Airplane Proposed For Mars Survey on Centennial of Wright Brothers First Flight


Malin Space Science Systems, NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Naval Research Laboratory, and Orbital Sciences Corporation have teamed to develop a mission to explore the “Grand Canyon” of Mars by aircraft on the 100th anniversary of the first airplane flight. This mission, the Mars Airborne Geophysical Explorer (MAGE), has been proposed to NASA’s Discovery Program for launch in May, 2003. The mission’s objective is to determine how the canyons of the Valles Marineris formed and have subsequently evolved. The MAGE aircraft, “Kitty Hawk,” would carry a payload of gravity, magnetic, and electric field sensors, an infrared imaging spectrometer, a laser altimeter, and still and video cameras on a 3 hour, 1800 km (1100 mile) flight over these canyons on 17 December 2003. A simulated image of Kitty Hawk over the Valles Marineris is shown in Figure 1.

“One key aspect of Mars exploration involves the search for the best places from which to return samples–places where geology indicates the possible past presence of water or layered sediments. Another involves the high resolution reconnaissance of features that are very large and/or widely separated–features hundreds to thousands of miles across” said Dr. Michael Malin, Principal Investigator for the MAGE Mission. “In both these cases, the resolutions needed are not attainable from orbiting spacecraft. Covering thousands of miles of extremely rough terrain is not possible with surface rovers. MAGE addresses both aspects of Mars exploration, using techniques developed for airborne surveys on Earth–gravity, magnetics, stereo imaging–to explore the Valles Marineris, a canyon system that’s as wide as the continental U.S. The Valles Marineris offers a four-dimensional window through which we can view ancient and once deeply-buried rock, deep-crustal continental-scale geophysical properties, and ancient and recent depositional and erosional phenomena. In addition, by flying this mission on the First Flight Centennial in 2003, we help show the connection between historic American technical accomplishments and today’s planetary exploration.” A map of the MAGE survey route over the Valles Marineris is shown in Figure 2.

The integrated scientific payload for MAGE would be developed by Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) of San Diego, CA. It includes: 1) a gravity gradiometer, for measuring the subsurface mass distribution, 2) a magnetometer, for measuring the magnetism of crustal rocks, 3) an electric field experiment, to measure signals from the martian ionosphere and lightning, 4) a laser altimeter, for determining the topography beneath the aircraft, 5) an infrared imaging system, for determining rock composition, and 6) six cameras–a high-resolution (2-12 inches) camera, a medium resolution (1-6 feet) camera, three stereo cameras, and a tail-mounted video camera to capture both the aircraft and the surrounding terrain in-flight. The development of the MAGE science payload builds on MSSS’s experience producing six instruments for Mars missions.

The Kitty Hawk aircraft will be developed by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) of Washington, DC, based on 20 years of advanced aerodynamic research. The airplane’s wings fold to fit into the entry vehicle, and deploy after separation from the entry vehicle at 2000 m (6500 feet) above the surface. Aerodynamic forces are used to “fly” the wings into place, a technique demonstrated on several NRL deployable aircraft programs for the Department of Defense. Fully deployed, the 135 kg (300 pound) airplane has a wingspan of 9.75 m (32 feet). The low-drag design is optimized to fly at a constant-pressure altitude, while the altitude above ground level varies from 1000 to 9000 m (3000 to 29000 feet–canyon rim to canyon floor). To drive the rear-mounted propeller and provide electrical power, Kitty Hawk uses a hydrazine-fueled engine, a technology used in NASA’s Mini-Sniffer unpiloted air vehicle.

The MAGE cruise and relay vehicle (CARV) and the Mars atmosphere entry vehicle (EV) will be developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation of Greenbelt, MD. The CARV is a 3-axis stabilized spacecraft that carries the entry vehicle until three days out from Mars. After CARV-EV separation, the CARV performs a “delay and deflect” maneuver, so that it flies by Mars about two hours after aircraft entry. The EV is a modification of the Mars Pathfinder design, with an identical heat shield and a larger aft cover to accommodate stowage of the aircraft wings. After the EV enters the martian atmosphere, the airplane is deployed, and the survey commences. Near the end of the flight, the CARV flies by Mars above Kitty Hawk, and accepts data transmitted from the aircraft. Over the following month, the CARV relays these data back to Earth. This flyby relay allows the return of 20 gigabits of geophysical and imaging data, without the expense of having to put the relay in orbit around Mars.

NASA Ames Research Center of Moffet Field, CA, will manage the MAGE Mission. This effort will include providing systems engineering for the CARV, EV and Kitty Hawk development. Building on its most recent success with the Lunar Prospector Mission, Ames will also be responsible for the in-flight operation of the mission, from launch in May, 2003 through final return of data in 2004.

An important part of the MAGE mission is its extensive education and public outreach program to work with a diverse group of space- and aviation-oriented organizations, including the First Flight Foundation, the Civil Air Patrol, and the National Air and Space Museum. Through these and other outreach partners, MSSS and its team members plan an unprecedented level of public participation in the mission as it unfolds.

NASA is expected to announce the next group of Discovery missions selected for further study in early November.

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