NASA plans to fly giant solar-powered Mars plane

NASA has secured its initial funding for developing a large aircraft designed to soar through the Martian atmosphere, with the aim of detecting water on the Red Planet.

The solar-powered craft, known as the Mars Aerial and Ground Intelligent Explorer, or Maggie, is slated to operate in Mars' atmosphere, featuring vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities akin to those of NASA's trailblazing Ingenuity Mars helicopter.

Upon full battery charge, the Martian aeroplane is anticipated to reach altitudes of 1,000m and cover approximately 180km, with its yearly range on Mars expected to exceed 16,000 km, as reported by the space agency earlier this month.

NASA intends to use this aircraft for three primary research projects on Mars, focusing on atmospheric studies and geophysical attributes. These include searching for water, investigating the origins of the planet's faint magnetic field, and tracking the elusive sources of Martian methane signals.

According to a recent blog post by NASA, "Maggie could initiate the first wide-scale atmospheric mission on Mars, significantly enhancing our ability to explore nearly the entire Martian landscape."

However, the agency has yet to disclose further details regarding the inaugural flight of this craft. One significant hurdle in creating aerial vehicles for Mars is ensuring they can lift off and sustain controlled flight in the planet's extremely thin atmosphere, where surface air pressure can be as low as it is 30-40km above sea level on Earth.

To date, missions to other planets have predominantly involved ground-based vehicles, such as NASA's Curiosity or China's Zhurong rovers. Nonetheless, following the success of NASA's groundbreaking Ingenuity helicopter, which was part of the Perseverance Mars mission, there has been a growing interest in aerial missions on Mars.

The 1.8kg Ingenuity helicopter, originally a technology demonstration for powered flight on another planet, successfully achieved flight and exploration on Mars, eventually transitioning from its testing phase to assist in scientific research.