NASA scientists recently announced the agency has begun prototyping a boomerang-shaped plane projected to make the first flight on Mars at some point between 2022 and 2024.

“We’re going to build some vehicles and we are going to put them in very unusual [environments] and see if they will recover where other aircraft would not,” said Al Bowers, NASA Armstrong chief scientist and the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars (Prandtl-m) program manager. “Our expectation is that they will recover. As soon as we get that information, we will feel much better flying it from a high-altitude balloon.”

The main reason Bowers is confident they will recover is because the drone will be made from composites – either fiberglass or carbon fiber.

“We believe this particular design could best recover from the unusual conditions of an ejection,” said Bowers.

According to Bowers, the use of composites will also make the aircraft lighter, which is important because in an unusual environment, it will need to be as efficient as possible in the air.

“The actual aircraft’s wingspan when it is deployed would measure 24 inches and weigh less than a pound,” said Bowers. “With Mars gravity 38 percent of what it is on Earth, that actually allows us up to 2.6 pounds and the vehicle will still weigh only one pound on Mars.”

In theory, the plane would eject from a satellite above Mars, glide down to the surface, and land. The plane could then be operated like a drone, flying over Mars’ surface, checking out proposed landing sites for future manned missions to determine their suitability for landings. The plane will take a test flight later this year that will simulate the flight conditions of the Martian atmosphere.

“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,” said Bowers.