Flying machines

Solar system bodies with a significant atmosphere have been explored with balloons (Venus) and parachuted probes (Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Titan). The NASA/JPL Ingenuity helicopter, deployed in 2021 on Mars, is the first “flying machine” that successfully operated (and still operates at the time of writing) by performing regular, low-altitude, hops. It was carried to the surface of Mars by NASA’s Perseverance rover. NASA/APL is developing the next “flying machine” mission (Dragonfly to Titan, a rotorcraft, that is currently planned to launch in 2027 for arriving in 2036). The NASA DAVINCI+ mission (launch in 2029), comprising an orbiter and an atmospheric probe that will descent under parachute to the surface in about one hour, is the next in situ exploration mission of Venus. Projects for exploring Saturn, Uranus and Neptune with parachuted descent probes are being studied by various space agencies (in particular NASA and ESA). A potential mission to either Uranus or Neptune, that may include an atmospheric probe, may be undertaken as a collaboration between NASA and ESA (ESA’s Voyage 2050. NASA’s 2023-2033 Decadal survey expected to be released on 19 April [1])


Context: A parachuted probe is deployed following atmospheric entry inside an aeroshell. The descent under parachute may last for a few minutes (Mars), typically one hour down to 10 bars (J, S, U, N), One hour down to the surface (Venus), and up to a couple of hours (Titan). In the past 10-15 years, several studies for the in situ exploration of Titan after Huygens, have been conducted for exploring Titan, the paradise for floating and “flying machines”, with various air-borne ships: balloons (pressurized balloons, hot air balloons (montgolfieres), aerobots, gliders, airplanes, etc). Going deep in the atmosphere of (V, J, S, U, N) requires the capability to sustain pressures typically up to 10, eventually 100 bars. In a recent study, a student from the university of Delft, studied the concept of a glider to explore the atmosphere of Uranus; it would provide the capability to glide for days (weeks) from about the 1 bar level down to the 100 bar level[2]. The future exploration of Mars, Titan and Venus (all 3 bodies with a solid surface), may further exploit the concept of aero-mobility and include the capability to reach multiple surface sites (at least for M and T, and why not V ?), at various ranges from the initial landing site. NASA is currently studying concepts for controlled, variable-altitude balloons for the study of the Venusian atmosphere at altitudes ranging from 52 to 62 km. However, balloon platforms have limited altitude range capability. To extend the operating envelope of the balloon system, concepts for drone-based systems capable of flying multiple times below and above the balloon altitude are being envisaged. The drone would be deployed from the platform, perform its mission flying around, above and below the platform, and return to the platform for recharge, and made ready for its next flight.

Conference Topics: Future missions to explore solar system bodies with “flying machines” beyond the 2040’s would require the development of various technologies and orbital infrastructures, among them: radio isotope heaters and radio isotope generators, long range radio communications between the robot and its surface or air-borne base, efficient Direct-to-Earth communication links,  a communication relay network in orbit, etc…Gliders, drones, and motorized aerobots (for V and T) would provide significantly new capabilities to explore the atmospheres of V, J, S, U, N, T. The science objectives, concepts for future missions (typically that would launch in the next 20-40 years) that would include a “flying machine” should be explored for various suitable targets, and the technical challenges and technologies to be developed to address them should be identified. More advanced concepts such as the concept of a swarm of interconnected flying explorers at Titan[3] should be evaluated from the scientific, technical, but also from the entertainment point of view.

Preparatory Workshop topics: The Conference is planned to take place in May 2023. During the preparatory workshop (in Spring 2022) the objectives of the exercise, the state of the art of the topic, and a few typical mission architectures that would include a “flying machine” would be identified in preparation for the Conference.

[1] Reference to the two documents will be included in the final version

[2] Reference to be provided in final version

[3] Reference to RMB proposal to be included in final version

Conference organized by the Air & Space Academy with the support of :