Mars aircraft


NASA Mini-Sniffer, a Mars airplane designed in the 1970s, also ran on hydrazine.[1]
Ingenuity helicopter viewed with Perseverance rover in the background (artwork)

A Mars aircraft is a vehicle capable of sustaining powered flight in the atmosphere of Mars. So far, the Mars helicopter Ingenuity is the only object to ever fly on Mars. It made the first powered flight on 19 April 2021, while stationed on the surface of Mars.[2] Previously, experimental aircraft such as the 1975-1982 Mini-Sniffer Mars airplanes had been considered for possible missions to fly in and study Mars' atmosphere, but none ever came into fruition. 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.[3]

Compared to Earth, the air on Mars is thinner at the surface (with pressure less than 1% of Earth's at sea level.) However, the gravity on Mars is much lower. (less than 40%).[4][3] Mars air, mostly consisting of CO
gas, is over 50% denser than Earth air adjusted to equal pressure.[3]


In 1918, the Danish science fiction film Himmelskibet (aka A Trip to Mars) featured an aerospace craft called Excelsior for a manned trip to Mars.[5]

Before the start of Mars exploration with spacecraft, the density of Mars' atmosphere was suspected to be higher than was later measured to be, leading engineers to think that winged flight would be much easier than it actually is. In his "Mars Project" ("Das Marsprojekt") concept,[6] Wernher von Braun proposed winged vehicles for landing human missions on Mars.[3]

The first detailed Mars lander contracted by NASA was to Ford/Philco Aeronutronic in the early 1960s, which was for a lifting body design for the lander; this is when some of best estimates for the Mars atmosphere were significantly denser than revealed by the Mariner IV measurements in July 1965.[7] The lander had a tub-shaped lifting body with winglets, and was one of the first detailed designs for Mars lander although it would not be able to fly in the revised figures for the Mars atmospheric conditions.[7] The Aeronutronic Mars lifting-body lander design was based on Mars atmosphere of mostly nitrogen about 10% of Earth.[7]

July 1965 marked a shift away from lifting body and winged glider style Mars landers to ballistic entry gumdrop style landers.[8]

In the 1970s the Mini-Sniffer aircraft were made in several versions so it could also operate in an all-CO
environment.[1] The Mini-Sniffer could run without oxygen by using hydrazine, and the design was considered for sampling the atmosphere of Mars.[9] The airplane had a large propeller to be effective in the thin air and many flights of various configurations were made between 1975 and 1982.[10]

A winged rover design was proposed in the 1970s, to cover more area than the stationary Viking landers.[3] There was a proposal by NASA in the 1990s for a Mars airplane to fly on Mars by the anniversary of the Wright Brothers's first flight, in the "Faster, Better, Cheaper" era.[3] The ARES Mars airplane proposal was selected as a Mars Scout Program candidate, but not selected for flight.

In 2015, a Mars aircraft was considered as an option in the re-boot of the Japanese MELOS mission.[11] One early design proposed a wing-span of 1.2m, a mass of 2.1 kg, and with the following mission profile:[11] During the landing phase of the surface element of MELOS, the aircraft would be released at an altitude of 5 km then fly 4 minutes, covering 25 horizontal km.[11]

On April 19, 2021, the NASA helicopter Ingenuity became the first powered and controlled Mars aircraft to take flight. It originally landed on the planet while stored under the NASA Mars rover Perseverance.[2]


ARES concept

Prototype Mars planes have flown at close to 30 km (98,000 ft) altitude on Earth (in roughly half of the average air pressure at Mars surface),[12] and tested expandable wings that cure in ultraviolet light.[13] For flight in Mars' atmosphere, the Reynolds number would be very low compared to flight in Earth's atmosphere.[4] Valles Marineris was targeted for an unmanned aircraft flight and by Mars' gliders.[14][3]

Gliders could carry more scientific instrumentation, but cover less area.[3] Hydrazine has been proposed as a fuel for Mars aircraft.[3] At one point, NASA was developing plans for a wok-sized airplane "micromission", which would piggyback on a separate Mars bound payload.[3] Mach 1 on Mars can be about 240 m/s (790 ft/s) while it is about 332 m/s (1,090 ft/s) on Earth.[15]

The Daedalus proposal in the canceled Mars Scout program designed a Mars glider that would fly over 400 km (250 mi) along the Coprates Chasma[16]

Proposed Mars airplane concepts include:

  • ARES (Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Survey)[17]
  • MAGE (Mars Airborne Geophysical Explorer)[14]
  • AME (Airplane for Mars Exploration)[12]
  • MATADOR (Mars Advanced Technology Airplane for Deployment, Operations and Recovery)[12]
  • Sky-Sailor, solar powered airplane with micro-robots[18]
  • Kitty Hawk, multi-glider mission[14]
  • Daedalus, glider with 400+ km range[19] (Mars Scout 2011 proposal)[16]
  • ARMaDA, "Advanced Reconnaissance Martian Deployable Aircraft"[20]
  • MAREA, "Martial Aerial Research Euroavia Airplane"[20]
  • Prandtl-M[21] (Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars)[22]
  • NASA Mini-Sniffer, considered for sampling the atmosphere of Mars, tested running on hydrazine (air independent).[10]


Balloons may provide an alternative to parachutes, allowing for a soft landing.[23] A balloon could allow a lander to take off and land at a new site.[23] Two types of balloon technology are super-pressure and Montgolfiere.[23] The super-pressure balloons try to contain the pressure caused by heating to maintain altitude.[23]

The Montgolfiere would use heated Martian air to create lift.[23] An example of concept for Mars balloon was the Mars Geoscience Aerobot.[24] 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.[25]

Airships with vacuum used to create lift have also been proposed.[26][27]


Ingenuity helicopter deployed at Wright Brothers Field on the surface of Mars

In 2002 a paper was published suggesting autonomous robotic helicopters for Mars exploration would be possible for the Mars Scout Program.[28] A number of advantages of a viable rotorcraft design were noted, including the ability to pass over difficult Mars terrain yet still visit multiple sites in situ.[28] The short hop made by Lunar Surveyor 6 in 1967 was noted as example of hopping to visit another site.[28]

Ingenuity, part of NASA's Mars 2020 mission, is a robotic helicopter that demonstrated the first rotorcraft flight in the atmosphere of Mars.[29] The aircraft was deployed from the Perseverance rover, and is expected to fly up to five times during its 30-day test campaign early in the mission.[30] Each flight will take no more than 90 seconds, at altitudes ranging from 3 to 5 meters (10 to 16 ft) off the ground, but it could potentially cover a maximum distance of about 50 m (160 ft) per flight.[29] It will use autonomous control and communicate with Perseverance directly after each landing. It achieved the first powered flight on another planet, and NASA will be able to build on the design for future Mars missions.[31]

List of flights

Flight N° Date
Peak altitude
Total distance moved[a]
Flight route Flight Objectives Outcome
19 April 2021 at 07:34
10 ft (3.0 m)
0 ft (0 m)
Vertical takeoff, stationary hover, landing
  • Start the Technology Demonstration Phase
  • Takeoff up to a height of 10 ft (3.0 m)
  • Hovering
  • Rotating clockwise in place (yaw from 0 to +90°)
  • Landing
22 April 2021 at 09:33
16 ft (4.9 m)
14 ft (4.3 m)
Vertical takeoff, hover, shift Westwards, hover, return, hover, landing[32][33]
  • Start horizontal motion with max airspeed 0.5 m/s after takeoff up to a height of 16 ft (4.9 m)
  • Stop horizontal motion
  • Take snapshots using horizon facing colour camera
  • Rotating counterclockwise in place (yaw from +90° to 0° to -90° to -180°, in 3 steps)
  • Land in same place of takeoff after moving
  • Counterbalance lateral wind pull
25 April 2021 at 11:31
17 ft (5.2 m)
328 ft (100 m)
Vertical takeoff, hover, shift Northwards with max airspeed of 2 m/s, hover, return, hover, landing[34][35]
  • Start horizontal motion with max airspeed 2.0 m/s instead of 0.5 m/s while maintaining almost the same height to which it was flown on second flight
  • Land in same place of takeoff after taking a roundtrip ranging up to 164 ft (50 m) North of takeoff site
First unsuccessful try on 29 April 2021 at 14:12[36][37]
Second try successful on 30 April 2021 at 14:49[38]
16 ft (4.9 m)
872 ft (266 m)
Vertical takeoff, hover, shift Southwards with max airspeed of 3.5 m/s, hover, return, hover, landing[39]
  • Start horizontal motion with max airspeed 3.5 m/s instead of earlier 2.0 m/s while maintaining almost the same height to which it was flown on second flight
  • Land in same place of takeoff after taking a roundtrip up to 436 ft (133 m) South of takeoff site
  • Take black and white images for every 4 ft (1.2 m) while travelling between 276 ft (84 m) and 436 ft (133 m) and taking color images while hovering at the point on 436 ft (133 m) before returning to the takeoff site to create a 3D map.
  • To be the first interplanetary spacecraft whose voice was heard and recorded by another interplanetary spacecraft, Perseverance Rover.

7 May 2021 at 19:26 [40]
33 ft (10 m)
423 ft (129 m)[b]
Vertical takeoff, hover, shift Southwards with max airspeed of 3.5 m/s, Rise to 33 ft (10 m), hover, landing at that spot
  • First flight without return to the initial take off site. Landing on a new site[41]
  • Rise up to 33 ft (10 m) above the new landing site
  • End the technology demonstration phase
6 ff.
Every 2 to 3 weeks until end of August[42]
  • Will begin a new operation demonstration phase after technology demonstration phase

TBD: To be determined.

Other aircraft and airborne devices

Other airborne devices
Viking 1 aeroshell
Curiosity rover lowered from Skycrane (artwork)
  • Hypersonic gliders were proposed by Wernher von Braun.[3]
  • Various parachutes have been the main air-borne device
  • Rocket-sustained flight as in the case of retro-rockets have also been a part of landing systems
  • Aeroshells from various spacecraft
  • A rocket powered hopper (e.g. Mars Geyser Hopper)


The Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera can both provide virtual Mars flyovers by draping surface pictures over 3D terrain models.[43][44][45]


  1. ^ Distance covered from and to the top of Wright Brothers Field (Helipad) after takeoff and before landing in each flight
  2. ^ Distance in this flight is covered only from the top of Wright Brothers Field after takeoff to before landing at the new spot

See also


  1. ^ a b "Mini-Sniffer". 2015-09-28.
  2. ^ a b "NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Succeeds in Historic First Flight". NASA. April 19, 2021. Retrieved April 20, 2021. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Oliver Morton – MarsAir : How to build the first extraterrestrial airplane". Retrieved March 4, 2021.
  4. ^ a b "Development and Flight Testing of a UAV with Inflatable-Rigidizable Wings" (PDF). University of Kentucky.Archived 2010-06-17 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Miklós, Vincze (August 15, 2013). "Astounding Spaceship Designs From Before The Space Age". io9.
  6. ^ von Braun, Wernher (1991) [1952]. The Mars Project (2nd ed.). University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-06227-8.
  7. ^ a b c "The Road to Mars..." Air & Space Magazine. Retrieved 2018-07-19.
  8. ^ "Gumdrops on Mars (1966)".
  9. ^ "NASA Dryden Mini-Sniffer Photo Collection". Retrieved 2018-01-21.
  10. ^ a b "NASA Dryden Mini-Sniffer Photo Collection".
  11. ^ a b c [1]
  12. ^ a b c Mars Airplane – Ames Research Center
  13. ^ BIG BLUE: High-Altitude UAV Demonstrator of Mars Airplane Technology
  14. ^ a b c John F. McGowan, Ph.D. – Wings on Mars (December 3, 1999)
  15. ^ "Mars Science Laboratory Mission Profile". Archived from the original on 2011-02-21. Retrieved 2012-08-21.
  16. ^ a b "Daedaluspresentation".
  17. ^ Ares Mars Airplane website Archived 2010-03-25 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ Sky-Sailor
  19. ^ Daedalus (April 2005)[permanent dead link]
  20. ^ a b Euroavia students design Martian aerial vehicle (ESA)
  21. ^ Could This Become the First Mars Airplane? NASA June 2015
  22. ^ Anderson, Paul Scott (2015-07-01). "Flying the Friendly Martian Skies: NASA to Test Mars Airplane Prototype". AmericaSpace. Retrieved 2018-07-19.
  23. ^ a b c d e NASA – Mars Balloons
  24. ^ "Mars Balloon Trajectory Model for Mars Geoscience Aerobot Development (1997)". Archived from the original on 2014-02-22. Retrieved 2012-03-22.
  25. ^ Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration (2012)
  26. ^ Future Tech: Martian Airships
  27. ^ Evacuated Airship for Mars Missions
  28. ^ a b c Young, Larry; Aiken, E.W.; Gulick, Virginia; Mancinelli, Rocco; Briggs, Geoffrey (2002-02-01). Rotorcraft as Mars Scouts. 1. pp. 1–378 vol.1. doi:10.1109/AERO.2002.1036856. ISBN 978-0780372313.
  29. ^ a b "Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Landing Press Kit" (PDF). NASA. January 2021. Retrieved 14 February 2021. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  30. ^ Decision expected soon on adding helicopter to Mars 2020, Jeff Fout, SpaceNews, 4 May 2018
  31. ^ Mars Helicopter Technology Demonstrator, J. (Bob) Balaram, Timothy Canham, Courtney Duncan, Matt Golombek, Håvard Fjær Grip, Wayne Johnson, Justin Maki, Amelia Quon, Ryan Stern, and David Zhu. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), SciTech Forum Conference; 8–12 January 2018, Kissimmee, Florida doi:10.2514/6.2018-0023 This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  32. ^ "Mars helicopter's first flight could happen on Monday". CNN. Ingenuity could fly four days after the first flight, then three days after the second flight and so on.
  33. ^ "We're Getting Ready for Ingenuity's Second Flight". 21 April 2021.
  34. ^ "We Are Prepping for Ingenuity's Third Flight". 22 April 2021.
  35. ^ "NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Flies Faster, Farther on Third Flight". 25 April 2021.
  36. ^ "Aim high, and fly, fly again". Twitter. Retrieved 2021-04-29.
  37. ^ Wall, Mike (29 April 2021). "Mars helicopter Ingenuity misses takeoff for 4th flight on Red Planet - NASA's team is assessing what happened". Retrieved 29 April 2021. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  38. ^ Cite error: The named reference :2 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  39. ^ "With Goals Met, NASA to Push Envelope With Ingenuity Mars Helicopter". 29 April 2021.
  40. ^
  41. ^ Cite error: The named reference NextStepsMediaBriefing was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  42. ^ "NASA's Ingenuity Helicopter to Begin New Demonstration Phase". NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. Retrieved 2021-05-03.
  43. ^ TPS – Unbelievably spectacular flight through Candor ChasmaMar. 9, 2010
  44. ^ Highlight of the Month January: Mawrth Vallis Animation (2012)
  45. ^ Flyover Animation of Becquerel Crater on Mars

External links

  • NASA – Planetary Flight Vehicle
  • NASA – ARES (multimedia)
  • Ultra-Efficient Aircraft Wins NASA Prize (2011)
  • Flight System Options for a Long-Duration Mars Airplane (.pdf)
  • Ames tests Mars airplane prototype (August 2001)
  • What’s the Best Design for a Flying Mars Robot? (Universe Today)
  • Could This Become the First Mars Airplane? NASA June 2015
  • Virtual flyover of Candor Chasma (Candor Chasma)