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Swiss plan new mission to Mars

The craft would have a wingspan of three metres, and weigh only three kilograms. EPFL

While a United States spacecraft roams the surface of Mars, Swiss experts are involved in a new Mars mission being considered by the European Space Agency (ESA).

This content was published on January 28, 2004 - 08:12

Dubbed Sky-Sailor, the project involves designing a solar-powered plane that would fly around the red planet.

The Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), and its Zurich counterpart (ETH) are involved in the project. In addition, the Swiss company, Ruag Aerospace, and aircraft expert Walter Engel will also contribute expertise.

The autonomous systems laboratory at the institute in Lausanne will carry out a feasibility study for a non-piloted aircraft over the next two months, with plans to test a model in Swiss skies this summer.

If successful, the project will form part of ESA’s international research programme, called Star Tiger.

One of the main aims of the craft would be to take detailed photographs of the surface of Mars, particularly areas where the Nasa rovers - Spirit and Opportunity - which are currently roaming the planet, could not reach.

“It is not possible to reach some areas of Mars with a rover, as you need a very safe, flat surface for it to land on,” Stéphane Michaud, a researcher involved with the project at the Lausanne institute, told swissinfo. “With an aeroplane you don’t have this problem.”

He added that the photos would be more detailed from a plane flying at around 500 metres from the ground than a craft orbiting the planet from further away.

Challenges

Michaud says the first challenge will be to design a plane with a small wingspan – probably about three metres – and a weight of only around three kilograms, but one that will carry a sufficient amount of solar cells to power the plane.

Another big test for the scientists will be to ensure the small craft is resilient enough to fly in the Martian atmosphere, which is about a 100th the density of Earth's. But, Michaud says, Mars’ smaller gravitational pull will work in their favour.

The scientists will also have to find a way for the unpiloted plane to navigate its way around the planet.

“One way could be to programme the craft to find a point to focus on and make its way towards it,” said Michaud.

Nicolas Thomas, a professor at the Space Research and Planetary Sciences Division at Bern University, says one of the main challenges for the Sky-Sailor team will be to justify the cost of the project.

“The question is whether that cost can be justified in terms of the scientific return that one can get from such a mission,” Thomas said.

He pointed out that ESA’s budget is about one seventh the size of that of Nasa, a fact which may limit the project.

Uncertain success

Michaud believes his team has a challenging time ahead.

“The study is very high risk because we are at the beginning of a very ambitious project. I am confident [of success], though, as we have a lot of experience in miniaturisation.”

Thomas, meanwhile, stresses that the project is still at a very early stage and there is no guarantee that it will get off the ground.

He says Nasa also looked into a potential aircraft mission for studying the red planet about five years ago, but has since put it on hold.

“I think it’s a very ambitious project. It’s a start, and it’s something that needs to be studied because new technological advances will come out of the project," Thomas said.

"But there’s a long way to go before such a mission can be considered for flight to Mars.

“I suspect that there will be aircraft flying around on Mars one day, [but] I don’t think it will happen before 2010 at the absolute earliest and possibly not until the middle of the next decade.”

swissinfo, Joanne Shields

Key facts

The team at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne will finish a feasibility study on the Sky-Sailor project by the end of March.
The scientists then aim to begin flying a model of the craft by the end of summer in conditions similar to those on Mars.
According to initial designs, the craft will have a propeller on its nose, a wingspan of three metres and will weigh a maximum of three kilograms.

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