DSFP’s SPACEFLIGHT HISTORY: Mars Airplane (1978)

Wings over Mars: the JPL Mars airplane swoops past a martian mountain so that its camera, mounted inside a clear plastic bubble on its belly, can turn sideways to image layers on the mountain slopes. Image credit: Jeff Bateman.

In the 1970s, as U.S. piloted spaceflight retreated to low-Earth orbit, NASA planning for advanced robotic Mars exploration missions came into its own. New information on the martian environment from Mariner 9 and the twin Vikings fueled engineer imaginations.

Many concepts that became actual missions in the 1990s and 2000s first received detailed study in the 1970s. Planners also looked at concepts that have yet to yield NASA missions: Mars sample return, balloons and blimps, small lander networks, and airplanes and gliders.

Spacecraft and space mission design and development decisions are complex and influenced by many factors. Scientific efficacy is but one factor considered, and it is not always the most important one. Nevertheless, scientists are almost always involved at the outset even when they do not originate the mission concept under consideration. Often this is achieved through the establishment of a supportive science working group that focuses on candidate scientific instruments.

The Ad Hoc Mars Airplane Science Working Group met at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, on 8-9 May 1978, to review mission objectives and propose a possible Mars airplane instrument payload weighing between 40 and 100 kilograms. In its report, the Group noted that a Mars Airplane designed for landings and takeoffs would be able to collect samples in places other types of vehicles might find hard to reach. The plane might also be used to deploy small payloads at scattered locations by airdrop or landing.

Mostly, however, the Ad Hoc Science Working Group limited its deliberations to use of the plane as an aerial survey platform. The Group based its planning on a Mars airplane design derived from NASA Dryden Flight Research Center’s “MiniSniffer” pilotless plane, which was designed to sample Earth’s stratosphere.

The 300-kilogram airplane would arrive at Mars folded in an lozenge-shaped Viking-type aeroshell. After aeroshell parachute deployment and heat shield separation, it would spread its hinged wings to their full 21-meter span and detach from the parachute and aeroshell in mid-air.

Conceptual Mars airplane design. Image credit: Jeff Bateman.

Normally, the plane would cruise one kilometer above the martian surface, though it would be capable of flying as high as 7.5 kilometers. The 4.5-meter-diameter propeller at the front of its 6.35-meter-long fuselage would pull it through the thin (less than 1% of Earth atmosphere density) martian atmosphere at a speed of between 216 and 324 kilometers per hour.

Mars airplane endurance would depend on the weight of its payload and the choice of power plant. A plane with a 13-kilogram, 15-horsepower hydrazine-fueled piston motor, 187 kilograms of hydrazine fuel, and a 100-kilogram payload could, the Group estimated, fly up to 3000 kilometers in 7.5 hours, while one with a 20-kilogram electric motor, 180 kilograms of advanced lightweight batteries, and a 40-kilogram payload could fly up to 10,000 kilometers in 31 hours.

After it depleted its fuel or batteries, the plane would crash on Mars. The Group noted that the plane’s short operational lifetime would dictate that its position after atmosphere entry be determined rapidly so that it could be directed quickly to its survey targets.

The Ad Hoc Group assumed that the Mars airplane would carry an inertial guidance system, radar and atmospheric-pressure altimeters, and terrain-following sensors (laser or radar) for navigation, and that these would serve double-duty as science instruments. The Group’s selected science payload was intended to characterize possible landing sites for a follow-on Mars sample return mission and also to perform “topical” studies. The latter would address specific questions about Mars: for example, “Is Valles Marineris a rift valley?”

Visual imaging would be “fundamental” to the Mars airplane mission, so would receive top priority in the instrument suite. The Group determined that the airplane would be well-suited to serve as a camera platform because it would offer image resolution intermediate between orbiter and lander cameras and would obtain valuable “oblique” (from the side) images of the surface.

A Mars airplane might fly down a sinuous martian outflow channel, for example, collecting high-resolution images of layers exposed in its walls. The Mars airplane camera might be mounted on a movable platform inside a transparent dome on the plane’s belly.

Other high-priority investigations would include wind speed, air pressure, and temperature measurements at various altitudes, infrared and gamma-ray spectroscopy and multispectral imaging to determine surface composition, and measurements of local magnetic fields. For magnetic field studies, the plane would fly a grid pattern over a selected region. The magnetometer, which might be mounted on a boom or a wingtip to minimize interference from airplane electrical sources, could also be used to seek out iron-rich surface materials and buried iron-rich volcanic structures.

The 1978 Mars airplane conceptual design effort fell victim to post-Viking disenchantment with Mars. Viking, which cost more than $1 billion in 1975 dollars, had been intended to find life, but its three biology experiments did not produce an unequivocally positive result. The Mars community did not at first recognize that it would need to restore support for Mars exploration before it proposed new Mars missions: that is, that Viking had made it more difficult to sell Mars exploration, not easier.

In addition, Space Shuttle development experienced setbacks. It was difficult to justify development of a vehicle for flying in the thin atmosphere of Mars when NASA had difficulty building one to fly in the thin upper atmosphere (and thicker lower atmosphere) of Earth.

Mars missions would resume, but not until 1992, when NASA launched a sophisticated orbiter called Mars Observer. The spacecraft was meant to inaugurate a new era of Mars exploration by providing a new overview of the planet. The loss of Mars Observer as it neared its destination on 25 September 1993 was a major setback; for a time, it appeared that recriminations over the very public failure might halt NASA Mars exploration.

The Curiosity rover landed in Gale Crater on 6 August 2012 and, after a checkout period, began its slow climb up the geologically complex layered slopes of Aeolus Mons (seen here in a color-corrected montage of images captured on 9 September 2015). At this writing, six-wheeled Curiosity has traveled about 22 kilometers. A Mars airplane could provide a perspective on Aeolus Mons, Valles Marineris, and other large features of Mars intermediate between that of a rover and that of an orbiter. Image credit: NASA.


Final Report of the Ad Hoc Mars Airplane Science Working Group, JPL Publication 78-89, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 1 November 1978.

Mars Airplane Presentation Material Presented at NASA Headquarters, JPL 760-198, Part II, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 9 March 1978.

More Information

The Russians are Roving! The Russians are Roving! A 1970 JPL Plan for a 1979 Mars Rover

After Venus: Pioneer Mars Orbiter with Penetrators (1974)

Purple Pigeon: Mars Multi-Rover Mission (1977)

Prelude to Mars Sample Return: The Mars 1984 Mission (1977)

Making Propellants from Martian Air (1978)

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