A Mars aircraft is a vehicle for flying in the atmosphere of Mars. So far, Mars lander entry, descent, and landing systems have passed through the atmosphere. Aircraft may provide in situ measurements of the atmosphere of Mars, as well as additional observations over extended areas. A long term goal is to develop piloted Mars aircraft.
Compared to Earth, the air is thinner at the surface (less than 1%) but the gravity is lower (less than 40%). Also, the major component of Mars air, CO2 gas, is denser than Earth air for a given pressure.
There was a big push in by NASA in the 1990s for a Mars airplane in the "Faster, Better, Cheaper" era. A design was also proposed in the 1970s, to cover more area than the single-site Viking landers. One of the earliest was Von Braun's winged landers, although at that time the density of Mars' atmosphere was thought to be higher.
Prototype Mars planes have flown at close to 30 km (about 98 thousand feet) altitude on Earth, and tested expandable wings that cure in ultraviolet light. For flight in Mars' atmosphere, the Reynolds number would be very low compared to flight in Earth's atmosphere. Valles Marineris was targeted for an unmanned aircraft flight and by Mars' gliders. Gliders could carry more scientific instrumentation, but cover less area. Hydrazine has been proposed as a fuel for Mars aircraft. Another possibility is taking off and landing, which could allow an aircraft to visit multiple landing sites. At one point, NASA planned a wok-sized airplane "micromission", which would piggyback on an Ariane 5 launch and use a lunar gravity assist to get to Mars. Mach 1 on Mars can be about 240 meters per second (537 mph) while it is about 332 m/s (743 mph) on Earth.
- ARES (Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Survey)
- MAGE (Mars Airborne Geophysical Explorer)
- AME (Airplane for Mars Exploration)
- MATADOR (Mars Advanced Technology Airplane for Deployment, Operations and Recovery)
- Sky-sailor, solar powered airplane with micro-robots
- Kitty Hawk, multi-glider mission
- Daedalus, glider with 400+ km range
- ARMaDA, "Advanced Reconnaissance Martian Deployable Aircraft"
- MAREA, "Martial Aerial Research Euroavia Airplane"
Balloons may provide an alternative to parachutes, allowing for a soft landing. A balloon could allow a lander to take off and land at a new site. Two types of balloon technology are super-pressure and Montgolfiere. The super-pressure balloons try to contain the pressure caused by heating to maintain altitude. The Montgolfiere would use heated Martian air to create lift. An example of concept for Mars balloon was the Mars Geoscience Aerobot. Some work has been done to develop extremely thin, flexible solar cells that could allow a balloon's skin itself to generate power from the Sun.
- Oliver Morton - MarsAir (January 2000) - Air & Space magazine
- Oliver Morton - MarsAir How to build the first extraterrestrial airplane. - NASA Quest
- Development and Flight Testing of a UAV with Inflatable-Rigidizable Wings - University of Kentucky
- Mars Airplane - Ames Research Center
- BIG BLUE: High-Altitude UAV Demonstrator of Mars Airplane Technology
- John F. McGowan, Ph.D. - Wings on Mars (December 3, 1999)
- Mars Science Laboratory Mission Profile
- Ares Mars Airplane website
- Daedalus (April 2005)
- Euroavia students design Martian aerial vehicle (ESA)
- NASA - Mars Balloons
- Mars Balloon Trajectory Model for Mars Geoscience Aerobot Development (1997)
- Young, et al. - Rotorcraft as Mars Scouts
- TPS - Unbelievably spectacular flight through Candor ChasmaMar. 9, 2010
- Highlight of the Month January: Mawrth Vallis Animation (2012)
- Flyover Animation of Becquerel Crater on Mars