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How light-propelled robots will fly in the cardboard atmosphere of Mars

What goes up must come down, but as any aerodynamics architect will tell you: accepting it up is the hard part.

On Earth, where our atmosphere is rather dense compared to many planets, we’re able to send aloft altar that are massive enough to be anchored to the ground through force via engineering based on simple concrete science principles. As MIT puts it:

Heavier-than-air flight is made accessible by a accurate antithesis of four concrete forces: lift, drag, weight, and thrust. For flight, an aircraft’s lift must antithesis its weight, and its thrust must exceed its drag. A plane uses its wings for lift and its engines for thrust. Drag is bargain by a plane’s smooth shape and its weight is controlled by the abstracts it is complete of.

But the atmosphere on Mars is some 100 times thinner than Earth’s. If you tried to send a acceptable Earth-bound jet aloft on the red planet it’d likely just peter along the planet’s apparent until it smacked into article ground-level. There’s not enough abutment in the air on Mars for most fixed-wing aircraft to get aloft, much less remain there. And, because buoyancy-based flight, also known as “lighter than air” flight, is likely out of the catechism too, that just leaves us with clever helicopter designs such as NASA’s Ingenuity, pictured in the video below:

But what if we went a altered route? Instead of sending an object in flight using aerodynamics, we could just build robots that bewitch on light instead – brownish Martian angels, held aloft on sun-drenched airy wings.

A team of advisers from the University of Pennsylvania afresh developed a light-driven acclivity address that enables tiny “aircraft” to ride on light itself. The activity was advised with the aim of analytic the botheration of aircraft flight in Earth’s mesosphere.

According to the team’s paper:

Currently used flight apparatus cannot be used to accomplish abiding flight in Earth’s mesosphere—the upper layer of the atmosphere amid at altitudes amid ~50 and ~80 km. Modern aircraft are not able to fly for an continued period of time above ~30 to 50 km because the air body at these altitudes is too low to accomplish lift for airplanes and balloons.

The solution? The advisers built ultra-thin flying discs made of OS film, a type of mylar often used on model airplanes. Per the team:

We bogus centimeter-scale samples with submicron array and altered surfaces on the top and bottom. By blanket the thinnest commercially accessible mylar film with carbon nanotubes (CNTs) on only one side, we added the thermal adaptation accessory on the bottom and generated a photophoretic force that levitated flat disks with centimeter-scale diameters. Notably, these levitating samples can be made using simple artifact methods from bargain abstracts and accomplish stable mid-air aerial at pressures agnate to altitudes of ~80 km in the atmosphere.

The next steps for the analysis should accommodate engineering tiny fliers and testing them in the Earth’s mesosphere. But, interestingly, Earth’s mesosphere isn’t that far off from what Mars’ atmosphere is. And that means the Penn team’s work might be the first steps toward analytic acceptable flight on Mars.

Of course, there’s a huge aberration amid a Boeing 747 and a centimeter-scale object. The Penn team’s proposed aircraft would be able to carry about 10mg, absolutely not enough to move people or accessories around. But it could be enough to affix a chip, a sensor, and transmitter to.

Theoretically, we should be able to fold nanobots and sensors into OS film and send them flying around Mars using the sun’s rays to accomplish lift.

If you think about poor Percy, the Perserverence rover that’s currently rolling around Mars attractive at rocks, it’s easy to brainstorm how millions of tiny robots alive around the red planet could access our all-embracing advantage by orders.

You can check out the full paper here.

Published March 9, 2021 — 18:50 UTC

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