Alongside the many aircraft hangars at Manassas Regional Airport are the facilities of Aurora Flight Sciences.
Inside, the company has a slew of unmanned aircraft. Some look like flying garbage cans and another resembles a sleek, predator drone.
Among these terrestrial fliers are prototypes and models for one plane, somewhat similar in function to other aircraft, but different in its destination.
If everything goes as planned, it will fly on Mars.
A rocket will blast off from Earth in 2011. It will fly through the black expanse of space and some time in 2012, it will reach Mars.
When the rocket reaches the red planet, a shell, 10 feet in diameter with a plane folded inside, will deploy and hurl through the planet’s atmosphere as its shield bears the brunt of friction fueled heat.
With the help of parachutes, the shell and plane will slow down. Once a slow enough speed is reached, they will part ways.
The blue-and-white plane has travelled these many millions of miles through space folded like a mummy in its tomb, its wings folded across its center like arms, with the tail of the plane folded over them.
As the plane falls toward the Martian ground, its tail and then its wings will have to unfold to reveal the span of its 14-foot 7-inch length and 21-foot wing.
At that point, as scientists wait back on earth, the moment of truth will come. The plane will fly on its own power and navigation. It will begin surveying Mars, taking measurements, and ultimately a camera will broadcast a time-lapsed image of a plane flying on an alien planet for the first time.
“We believe that this ARES mission will really excite the public in a way that no other mission has excited the public in a long time,” said Joel S. Levine, the principal investigator on the ARES project.
The ARES Mars airplane is like no other proposed mission to the red planet. There have been rovers and orbiters, but never before has a plane flown on another planet.
ARES stands for Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Survey. The plane is one of many proposals competing in the Mars Scout competition held by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.
The competition accepts proposals from NASA scientists, universities and other non-government agencies.
“It’s a little bit different in that we are not putting the announcement out in an attempt to solicit something we cannot do ourselves,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program.
Meyer said the advantage of the competition is that ideas come in that aren’t in the forefront of NASA’s mind, but are, nevertheless, interesting. The Mars airplane is one example.
“It’s within the broad goals of the program, but it was not necessarily something we had on our radar screen to do next,” he said.
This is the second Mars Scout competition; the first was in 2002. ARES also competed then, making it into the final four projects under consideration, but it ultimately lost to a Mars lander developed at the University of Arizona.
The current ARES project is being developed out of NASA Langley by a team led by Levine. He and his team hope to accomplish a variety of goals with the space airplane.
“One of the fundamental questions in all science is, ‘Is there life on Mars?’ ” Levine said.
Of all the planets and objects in the solar system, Levine said that Mars is the most likely to have life, and if it did, it would likely be microscopic.
One of the ways that ARES would look for life is by measuring certain types of gases that could indicate its presence.
Another goal is to find out why Mars looks the way it does.
“We have very good evidence that in its early history Mars was Earth-like,” Levine said.
This evidence shows that once upon a time, Mars could have had rivers, lakes and oceans, Levine said.
“Something happened on Mars over its history to transform it into the planet it is today,” Levine said. “And we want to understand what that process, or processes, were.”
The last goal is to aid in a presidential objective.
On Jan. 14, 2004, President Bush set a new objective for the nation’s space program, Levine said. The president said he wanted to send men back to the moon, and after that, to Mars.
Sending an unmanned plane to Mars to take measurements can reduce the risk when humans come to the planet, Levine said.
The NASA Langley team is working with a variety of outside people on the project. They have specific groups working on aspects like instrumentation, propulsion and the airframe. The last honor goes to Aurora Flight Sciences.
In 1999, Aurora Flight Sciences and NASA Langley began working together for the first time, said Aurora’s founder and president, John Langford.
“At that time, NASA was thinking about commemorating the anniversary of the Wright Brothers flight by doing something dramatic,” he said.
That “dramatic” thing was putting an airplane on Mars.
NASA had a competition, and the Mars airplane became one of two finalists.
“The day they were supposed to announce the winner they cancelled the competition,” Langford said.
Fortunately, Aurora got another chance when it jumped on board with the ARES project for the first Mars Scout competition. Now the company has yet another chance with the latest competition.
Joel Pedlikin, the program manager for ARES technical maturation, works on the Aurora side of the project.
“Aurora’s primary role on this mission is to build the structure of this airplane,” Pedlikin said. “We need to build it out of as advanced, lightweight composite materials as we can.”
Pedlikin said that most materials used in traditional military aircraft wouldn’t fly for something like ARES.
The design has to take into account factors like temperature extremes and outgassing, Pedlikin said.
“When you are in a vacuum, some materials in your structure will bubble up, essentially, and weaken the material,” he said.
Also, the atmosphere of Mars is about 100 times thinner than that of Earth, according to Mark A. Croom, ARES airplane chief engineer.
To generate lift, the plane has to have a certain design and it must fly about 10 times faster on Mars than it would on Earth, Croom said. It will go between 350 and 400 miles per hour.
To make sure the plane can function, its structure must be built and tested in laboratories, computer simulations and wind tunnels.
Some of that testing happens at NASA Langley.
A myriad of wind tunnels, some of which will be used to test ARES, cover the 800-acre NASA Langley campus.
One day in September, a quarter-scale model of the plane was set up in the 12-foot tunnel in a NASA building on the U.S. Air Force side of Langley.
The ARES model perched on a metal pole that jutted from the center of the octagonal tunnel, centered in front of the 16-foot, wooden fan blades that would be used to test the forces on the model.
The scale model was made of gleaming metal, shining like a diecast replica in the tunnel’s lights.
The tunnel’s control room, separated from the tunnel by a viewing window, has television monitors, computers and a smorgasbord of switches which engineers use to monitor tests.
This wind tunnel tests the model at low speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. The model can be moved into different positions to test different aspects of its aerodynamics.
Other wind tunnels at NASA Langley test ARES scale models at higher speeds, or when spinning. But the real test for ARES is the drop test.
A full-scale version of ARES, built in Aurora’s Manassas facility, is at NASA Langley.
This prototype is a precursor to the real thing and will be used to test the design of the project.
The plane could be taken up to an altitude where conditions resemble the atmosphere on Mars then released.
If the test ends well, it could be a sign of what’s to come.
The proposals for the Mars Scout Competition were submitted Aug. 1.
Levine said three finalists will be chosen this time, and those names are expected in November or December.
After that, three finalists will have nine months to show how the scientific measurements and objectives of the mission will be achieved.
At the end of the nine months, the step two proposal will be submitted, which includes everything from the step one proposal and about 1,000 pages of additional information.
By the end of 2007, the ARES team will know if its airplane is going to Mars.
Levine said that when he first suggested the idea of a Mars airplane six years ago, the prospect didn’t look good.
“At first it was met with smiles and laughter, and in some cases ridicule, because people didn’t understand the power of flying an airplane on Mars,” he said.
But now the idea has become almost mainstream.
Flying an airplane on another planet is just a matter of time, Langford said.
“Somebody is going to be the first to do it, and we are very eager for it to be us,” he said.