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This could be the first airplane on Mars

Take a peek at the possible future of flight on Mars with the Prandtl-m, a prototype aircraft scheduled for testing on Earth.

This render shows what the Prandtl-m might look like on Mars. NASA

When I think of airplanes on Mars, I imagine a sci-fi scenario with robotic winged flying machines swarming through the Martian air, gathering data like a flock of hyper-intelligent space seagulls.

The first airplane on Mars will be pretty far from this fantasy. Chances are, it will look a lot more like a kind of glider that's already in use on Earth, according to a NASA photo released Monday.

The proposed Prandtl-m aircraft is a relatively dainty flying-wing-style plane. The prototype will be based on the existing Prandtl-d, a radio-controlled glider designed and built by aerospace engineering students during a NASA internship in 2012 and 2013.

A Prandtl-m prototype is scheduled to launch from a high-altitude balloon later in 2015. Sending it out into the sky at around 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) up will approximate the conditions found in Mars' atmosphere. The ultimate goal is to modify the design to include foldable wings that allow it to fit into a compact CubeSat, a type of mini satellite.

A CubeSat with a Prandtl-m could hitch a ride along with a Mars rover, deploy into the atmosphere and glide to safety, taking high-res photos as it flies. The flying wing will be made from a strong but lightweight material like carbon fiber or fiberglass, giving it a slim weight of around 2.6 pounds (1.2 kilograms).

"The Prandtl-m could overfly some of the proposed landing sites for a future astronaut mission and send back to Earth very detailed high-resolution photographic map images that could tell scientists about the suitability of those landing sites," said NASA scientist and Prandtl-m program manager Al Bowers.

If initial testing is successful, the aircraft could be put through a series of missions designed to mimic conditions for a deployment from a CubeSat on Mars. "If the Prandtl-m completes a 450,000-foot drop, then I think the project stands a very good chance of being able to go to NASA headquarters and say we would like permission to ride to Mars with one of the rovers," Bowers said.

The development team hopes it could hitch a ride to the Red Planet sometime around 2022 to 2024.

Prandtl-d flying wing
The Prandtl-d is the inspiration for a possible Mars glider. NASA/Ken Ulbrich