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Flying High (75 Degrees North)


Mat Kaplan
Phone: +1-626-793-5100

From July 17 to 24, 2002, The Planetary Society will team up with NASA Ames Research Center, the SETI Institute, and MicroPilot to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic in simulated Mars exploration. The airborne scientific investigations of this remote region will coincide with the anniversary of two milestone events in space exploration history - the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon in 1969 and Viking 1 landing on Mars in 1976, both on July 20th.

Devon Island is a treeless polar desert as large as the state of West Virginia. Its climate, remoteness, rocky plains, deep canyons, rugged landscape, and lack of human population make it a good analog for Mars, which is why NASA has sponsored the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) at an impact crater site there for the past six years. Devon Island is home to the second most northerly known impact structure on Earth.

"The UAV flights will, in part, be simulations to learn more about the science and exploration potential of Mars airplanes, carried out in a Mars analog environment on Earth," says Planetary Society Director of Projects Bruce Betts. "In addition, the flights will enable the Ames-led UAV team to develop flight control strategies for Mars airplanes, and will allow the HMP science team to study the Mars analog environment itself."

The UAV team will fly the autonomous craft over a variety of terrains, exploring Devon Island's arid landscape from the air just as scientists hope they may one day explore Mars with autonomous aircraft. During their one-week stay at Haughton, the team will fly the UAV as many times per day as weather conditions and fuel supplies will permit. In the summer days are 24 hours long north of the Arctic Circle.

The airplane, manufactured by MicroPilot, is called a Xtra Easy UAV. The team will bring three such craft to Devon Island. Each UAV measures 175 centimeters from wing tip to wingtip and will be equipped with an on-board video camera to image the island below. The aircraft are quiet and efficient with fuel, which will help minimize any disturbance to the environment.

After each short flight, Planetary Society representative and geologist Emily Lakdawalla will help the HMP Science Team analyze the data and select the next target for the UAV to observe.

One type of surface feature that the team hopes to examine is water-eroded gullies that have many similarities to the recent gully systems reported on Mars. Since the UAV can fly at different altitudes - from 50 to 500 meters over Devon Island -- surface features can be examined from a variety of angles and perspectives.

"Satellite image resolution is getting better and better, but most satellites look straight down or nearly straight down at the landscape," said Lakdawalla. "Airplanes will let us look at steep features like gullies and crater walls from the side, and they'll be able to make multiple passes at interesting features from different directions."

The Devon Island experiment does not test a Mars Airplane-like vehicle, but rather simulates the scientific use of airplanes for Martian exploration. NASA has seriously studied the Mars Airplane concepts and the agency has received many airplane proposals in recent years. Mars airplanes have the potential to fill the gap between orbiters, that gather data over the whole planet but are limited in resolution and viewing angle, and rovers, that see a very small portion of Mars in great detail.

In the future, autonomous airplanes might be used to examine more closely Mars targets that scientists select from orbital images of the planet. In turn, interesting targets surveyed from the air might be further explored by ground-based rovers or, one day, by human explorers on the planet's surface.

The Planetary Society is beginning a series of activities to simulate components of possible future Mars Outposts, which are part of a proposed exploration strategy that would build up sustained, incremental infrastructure in certain locations on Mars, eventually leading to human exploration. The Society's participation at the HMP is in part to simulate Mars airplanes in this context.

The UAV team, led by Larry Young and Benton Lau of NASA Ames Research Center, is participating in the Devon Island tests to conduct research on a Mars mission concept called BEES for Mars. BEES stands for Bio-inspired Engineering for Exploration Systems. The objective of this NASA Ames research-and-development effort is to develop flight control strategies for Mars exploration that are bio-inspired. In other words, the engineers want to develop technology that mimics and is inspired by some of the behavior patterns of natural creatures, such as bees or ants.

MicroPilot is a division of Loewen Aviation Ltd. Their autopilot systems have been used to measure particulate levels of harmful substances around chemical spills and to conduct aerial photography and videography. They have flown a number of different aircraft, including backpackable UAV's, blimps, powered parachutes, and high-speed drones. Paul Chambers from MicroPilot will participate in the tests at Devon Island.

Pascal Lee of the SETI Institute directs the NASA Haughton Mars Project. Many government agencies, universities, industry, and private organizations cooperate and participate in the project from the United States, Canada, and other nations around the world.

In addition to Lakdawalla's role in the tests, The Planetary Society is also supplying the large dome-shaped hangar tent for the three UAV's. The Planetary Society dome will be established at the HMP Base Camp. Living conditions at Devon Island are basic, and researchers haul accommodations for themselves and their equipment with them to the Base Camp.

Lakdawalla's daily updates about the UAV tests will be posted on The Planetary Society's website. This Devon Diary will include still images of the UAV team and aircraft in action, and possibly video from the flights.

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