Mars' Perseverance, the robotic explorer currently roaming on the Red Planet, is one of eight active spacecraft, including three operated by NASA, that are currently orbiting Mars, collecting information and other information about the planet.
What lies between the rovers and the orbiters remains a mystery to space explorers as there are no airplanes to study these areas as yet.
The planetary boundary layer on Mars is an out-of-reach component.
"You have this very essential, critical element in this planetary boundary layer, like in the first few kilometers above the ground," said Alexandre Kling, a research scientist at NASA's Mars Climate Modeling Center.
"This is where all the interactions between the surface and the atmosphere occur. This is where dust is picked up and sent into the atmosphere, where trace gases are mixed, and where large-scale winds are modulated by mountain-valley flows occur. And we just don't have much information about it."
Kling has teamed up with a group of University of Arizona engineers to construct a motorless sailplane that can fly over the Martian surface for days at a time, using only wind energy for propulsion. The vehicle will include flight, temperature, and gas sensors as well as cameras.
Despite this, the car will only weigh 11 pounds, making it a breeze to maneuver in the Martian environment.
"These other technologies have all been significantly limited by energy," said the paper's first author, Adrien Bouskela, an aerospace engineering doctoral student at University of Arizona professor Sergey Shkarayev's Micro Air Vehicles Laboratory.
"What we're proposing is just using the energy in situ." It's a step forward in terms of longer flights. Because the main question is: How can you maximize the amount of wind there, and the thermal dynamics that are there, rather than relying on solar panels that need to be recharged?"
Capturing images of new areas
Current vehicles on Mars have mostly captured images of Mars' flat plains because that is the only area where rovers can safely land. However, new and improved sailplanes would be able to explore new areas by exploiting geologic formations such as canyons and volcanoes.
"With this platform, you could just fly around and discover those really interesting, really cool places," said Kling.
What would happen if the planes landed on Mars and could not be refueled again? The mission would continue with the airplanes now serving as weather stations, continuing to relay information about the atmosphere back to the spacecraft.
Now,Kling anticipates that the low-cost nature of his new airplanes will enable them to fly on the Red Planet in the near future rather than the decades necessary for a full-scale mission.