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Learning to Fly on Mars


So how do you learn to fly on Mars? Start where the Wright brothers did over 100 years ago!

While many college students were busy working on a tan over spring break, a team of student researchers was honing their skills and designs over the dunes where Orville and Wilbur made their historic flights. These students from the University of Kentucky were working on their BIG BLUE project (Baseline Inflatable Glider Balloon-Launched Unmanned Experiment), and the trip to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was part of the test program for their Mars airplane design.

Image of the plane from the BIG BLUE Mars project during flight
Image to right: On-board camera view of the test team during one of the remotely-piloted flights. Prior to a test flight with the cured inflated composite wing, this flight included a foam wing cut to the inflated-wing profile. Credit: University of Kentucky

The 6-month spaceflight to Mars establishes requirements for a lightweight, compact design. Once there, for an airplane to fly in the low-density atmosphere of Mars and explore the Martian surface, it should have as large a wingspan as possible. Also, extreme temperatures on Mars dictate the need to be as simple a design as possible. Instead of a complicated unfolding wing, this project's unique design is an inflatable fiberglass composite wing impregnated with resin that cures in the ultraviolet radiation of the sun once it deploys. Engineers at ILC Dover, Inc. -- makers of NASA's spacesuits and the Mars Lander airbags -- advised the University of Kentucky students as they designed and ground-tested the materials, the wing and its inflation system.

Image of the side profile of two different wings during a wind tunnel test
Image above: In wind-tunnel testing, the inflated wing's "bumpy" profile improves aerodynamic performance by reducing flow separation in low-density, high-speed flight conditions expected for Mars flight. Credit: University of Kentucky

As a step towards realizing the BIG BLUE project vision of autonomous flight in near-Mars conditions more than 30,000 meters above Earth, deployment and curing of the inflatable wing was demonstrated during ascent under a high-altitude weather balloon. Along with operating in an atmospheric density that is 99% reduced, the glider had to withstand temperatures below -50ยบ C. This also meant that the embedded control, power, communications and instrumentation, and the external inflation system -- all designed, built and tested by the students -- had to perform under these extreme conditions. One high-altitude flight test in May 2003 tested the inflation system and wing curing. Over 100 low-altitude flight tests of various systems including the cured inflatable wing and four increasingly-capable autopilots were conducted in Kentucky during the months prior to the second high-altitude launch in Colorado slated May 2004.

Flight string of the launch of the BIG BLUE flight experiment
BIG BLUE's Colorado launch took place May 1, 2004 and was preceded by a three-day marathon troubleshooting and simulation session. Volunteers from Edge of Space Sciences launched and tracked the glider as the test flight progressed. The test plan called for the glider to cut away from the descending flight string at low altitude, but due to conditions, the visual confirmation needed for the team to initiate free flight was never obtained. Despite the disappointment of not seeing the glider fly that day, the test flight proved an enormous success in deployment and curing of the wings, and the glider was recovered shortly after it set down under parachute.

Image to right: Flight string of the May 1, 2004 launch of the BIG BLUE flight experiment: (top to bottom) 3000-gm latex balloon, the descent parachute, the balloon/chute cutter control (white), GPS and communication module, "look-down" camera module, the inflation module (blue) and the orange-tailed BIG BLUE glider. Credit: University of Kentucky

After returning from Colorado, the team set some lofty goals for next year's flight test. A refined autopilot and fuselage will be designed and other improvements will help the glider to make an altitude over 30,000 meters. Also planned for later this summer are a series of flight tests using this year's glider and wings deployed and cured during the high-altitude flight test.

Over 100 students, mostly undergraduates in mechanical and electrical engineering, have participated in the BIG BLUE project since its inception in November 2002. Their experiences on BIG BLUE have given them the opportunity to work as part of a multidisciplinary team on state-of-the-art technology development that is contributing to the future of space exploration. The students have traveled to three NASA centers and various industry sites to interact with aerospace engineers as peers. They also pass along the excitement of the project and of learning to fly during the centennial of the Wright's first flights to K-12 students and the public. These experiences meet the goals of NASA's Workforce Development Program sponsored by the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, which is enthusiastically administered through the Kentucky Space Grant Consortium by Drs. Richard and Karen Hackney.

BIG BLUE Chase Team with glider
Image above: The BIG BLUE glider and attached inflation system module at the landing site with the BIG BLUE Chase Team, Edge of Space Sciences members and the farmer who owns the field (and his dog). Credit: University of Kentucky

The BIG BLUE students have been encouraged by the many NASA scientists, aerospace industry engineers, amateur radio and model aircraft hobbyists they've met and consulted. Gene Kranz, Flight Director of Apollo 13 and other NASA missions to the moon, presented the keynote address at the 2003 Space Grant Conference. After hearing about BIG BLUE, he sent his encouragement in the form of a photo signed, "To the BIG BLUE Team - Aim High."

The BIG BLUE team is learning more with every flight. The Wright brothers would appreciate that!

Related Resources

BIG BLUE Web page
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ILC Dover, Inc. Web page
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Edge of Space Sciences Web page
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National Space Grant Student Satellite Program Web page
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National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program Web page
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BIG BLUE is part of the National Space Grant Student Satellite Program, sponsored in part by the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program. Across America, Space Grant students are learning from the ground up -- literally -- by designing, building, flying and operating a broad range of spacecraft. Missions of growing complexity provide opportunities to acquire baseline skills and then to build on them. They range from the simple -- to building soda-can "satellites" or small payloads for launch from small rockets or balloons -- building sophisticated satellites. This strategy, dubbed "crawl", "walk", "run" and "fly!", aims to make aerospace history and send the first student-built satellites to Mars.

Adam Groves, 2004 BIG BLUE student team member
Suzanne Weaver Smith, Jamey D. Jacob, James E. Lumpp, Jr. and William T. Smith, BIG BLUE advisors

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