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Design a Mars Flyer
Jamais Cascio, 30 Mar 06

marsuav.jpgAttention, European university students (or their friends and families): how would you like to design an unmanned aerial vehicle for use on Mars?

EUROAVIA (European Association of Aerospace Students) DeWo WG and the European Space Agency have kicked off a competition, open to students at European universities specializing in aeronautics and/or space technologies, asking them to come up with a design plan for a UAV best suited for exploring the planet Mars.

The authors of the 25 best papers will be invited to participate in the three-week design workshop at ESA's research and technology centre (ESTEC). During the workshop they will create a preliminary design of a UAV for Mars with the assistance of specialists from the industry and other institutions. Selected participants will be hosted at no cost.

More information can be found at the Design Workshop 2006 site.

Although many of us at WorldChanging are Areophiles, the most appealing aspect of this program is the inclusion of university students in a potentially revolutionary space effort. As with other student competitions, such as the Cradle to Cradle Home Competition, the Solar Decathlon, and the Car of 2030 competition, the point isn't to get the best possible design, but to get the most innovative design -- ideas from people who haven't yet learned to listen when told that something is impossible.

For Areophiles, though, this competition rocks. Mars scientists have long dreamed of using a flying probe. As wonderful as the Mars Rovers have been, in two years they've covered a distance comparable to what a human could stroll in an hour or so. If we want to see more of the planet from relatively close up -- and we can't afford or don't want to send humans yet -- a flying probe is our best bet. We've discussed the idea of using a balloon as a flying probe before, and a lighter-than-air vehicle has some distinct advantages over a winged flyer: it's easier to pack onto a lander, and can go for weeks or months without having to worry about power. A balloon probe can't control where it goes, however, being subject to wind patterns.

There have been some interesting advances in UAV technologies of late, most notably the successful test of an entirely-solar-powered long-range flier. The much thinner atmosphere of Mars could be a problem, however, as a useable flier would need far larger wings to maintain lift. Still, ideally we'll see some combination of winged, powered fliers and lighter-than-air balloons in a planetary exploration fleet.

And maybe one of you will take us there.

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