Mars Solar-Electric Airship Design
Inclusive Dates: 01/01/00 - 12/21/01
Background - Detailed exploration of Mars requires the capability to survey the planet with a spatial resolution that cannot be achieved with orbiting spacecraft. Surface rovers have limited range because of the rough terrain that must be traversed. NASA has plans for a Mars airplane, which can survey areas of interest quickly, but the Mars airplane has a limited duration and range. Mars balloons promise long duration flights that would move with the winds. Without directional control, however, surveying selected areas of interest on the planet may not be possible. A Mars airship would provide a long duration aerial platform that can navigate over the Martian surface. The airship could methodologically fly a grid pattern over target areas mapping magnetic fields or geographic features in high spatial resolution. SwRI is well positioned to lead the development of a Mars airship based on its strong background in planetary science, space instrumentation and electronics, along with its experience in high-altitude terrestrial airships and balloons. Missions that are not presently possible, such as mapping the unusual magnetic fields of Mars or surveying the surface for geological evidence of life, could be proposed.
Approach - The goal of this program is to develop a set of tools that could be used to design and simulate airships that act as aerial platforms for Mars science instrumentation. The tools and experience developed on this program will allow SwRI to propose Mars exploration missions that cannot be accomplished using satellites, airplanes, balloons, or surface rovers. The design model for Mars airships will allow for evaluating design concepts quickly. Airships are complex integrated machines in which all the subsystems are tightly interrelated. Environmental factors must be accounted for such as wind speed, solar insulation, air density, air temperature, and dust and cloud effects. A mathematical model of the airship will be developed that will provide a systematic method of handling the large number of dependent variables and optimizing the design. A Mars flight simulator will be developed that will allow the performance of the airship to be evaluated for any proposed mission. Using these tools, the team will design airships and perform mission simulations for two or more Mars missions.
Accomplishments - A general-purpose design model for Mars airships has been developed. This software allows the designer to input the mission flight requirements (payload mass and power, wind speed, altitude) and quickly determine the Mars airship volume. A Mars airship flight simulator program has been completed that can simulate the airships performance for a mission. The research team has selected two demonstration missions to evaluate the design model and flight simulation programs. Each mission was selected based on actual science objectives. The first is a 12-hour flight along the walls of the Valles Marineris about 3,400 feet above the canyon floor. The goal of this mission would be to gather high-resolution photography and spectrography data that will provide insight into the present and past geology of the planet. The second mission is a multiday survey of the planet surface in selected areas of the southern highlands of Mars where magnetic anomalies have been detected. The airship would fly approximately 6,000 feet above the surface, gathering high-resolution magnetometer data and surface photographs.