NASA's Martian Rocket Plane courtesy of NASA

Since budget cuts and the inability to overcome problems like boredom and high radiation doses have ruled out any manned mission to Mars in the foreseeable future, NASA has shifted gears back towards a program of robotic exploration. To that end, NASA now wants a rocket-powered UAV to fly around the Red Planet, photographing the surface.

The plane, repetitively named ARES (not to be confused with NASA's shuttle replacement, also named ARES), would fly to Mars in a regular rocket. Once it reaches the fourth rock from the Sun, it would pop out of the capsule, deploy its wings, and fire the rockets for an hour-long flight through the Martian sky. During that flight, ARES would cover about 373 miles, which is a little less than 100 times the area covered by the Spirit rover over the last five years.

Any aircraft flying on Mars would need some serious horsepower. The Martian atmosphere is 169 times thinner than the air here on Earth, so generating lift over ARES's wings may prove tricky. NASA has already devoted five years to initial design, but still has a long, long way to go before this thing takes flight. Of course, when the end product is a Martian rocket plane, the wait is worth it.

[The Register]


The satellites in orbit can't do the same thing...

(5 yrs in development) + (more years in development) + (months in transit) + (only one hr of flight time) = NASA Fail.

I wonder if lighter than air (hydrogen/helium) balloons would work in Mars rarified atmosphere ?

NASA actually had plans for a balloon explorer on Mars many years ago. I wonder why they did not go w/ it.
I think a blimp that can fly anywhere on Mars could be even better.

Agreed locutus....agreed.

People say the private sector could put a man on Mars in 20 years. They have tons of money to spend, might as well let them do it. :P


from Caracas, Miranda

+$500 millon for 60 minutes of flight?
Come on!

Send a ballon!

Improve the designs of spirit and oportunity and send more rovers!

Send the "core" of a future human habitat!

This "rocketplane" is just bluffing.

would a balloon/blimp even work in Mars' atmosphere? if the surface pressure on Mars is less that 1 percent that of Earth's at sea-level, then wouldn't an airship be more likely to just sink or sit still rather than float?

the phrase "lighter-than-air" is relative to where you are. under the ocean air will float to the top. in Earth's atmosphere a balloon will float (until it reaches an equilibrium with the pressure outside the balloon). on Mars...i don't think it would do anything.

but it would still seem a better idea than a one-hour rocket plane.

I'm thinkin more of a huge inflatable hampster ball. Like 50 ft in diameter. Never get stuck. OOH OOH wait, no, a giant Sand Worm, yeah, like on the cover of that book I never read.

When you read the original article it really focuses the degree of fail for NASA here. The new NASA loves to over engineer things and this is definatly a project that has been over engineered. I agree with most the rest the post with a blimp, where even with a thin atmosphere it would not be easy to make, but a better idea than deploying a jet that has to stabilize, deploy wings, start engines before making a crater on mars, just to many moving parts to fail.

I think they are a lot closer to effective radiation shielding than certain government agencies would have us believe. See the following link to a magnetic radiation shield patent: ""

I was reading something a couple of months ago that magnetic radiation shields that are currently being studied have been found to require significantly less energy than previous estimates. Does anyone else have any information on this? I did multiple searches and could not find the article. I figured there would be a lot more information online about magnetic radiation shield studies, since it seems like it could be very promising.

Also, there have been recent developments of physical space radiation shielding. At the following link, some students at North Carolina State University developed a space shield "blanket" for a competition: ""

Perhaps they may end up combining both physical barriers and magnetic shielding to counteract space radiation.

Regarding my radiation shielding comment above, I found a couple of articles at the following links:

As I was saying, I think they are farther along with developing radiation shielding than they care to admit. There's a lot of political resistance toward manned space flight, so that may be the motivation right now.

Hmm, seems as if NASA is just investigating at this stage. They probably investigate a lot of stuff at any one time.

I think that it could be a reasonable program, given the problems to be solved for a manned mission.

As for the baloon concept, it may have already been proven to be a non starter. The rarefied atmosphere would seem awfully hostile to a 'lighter than air' approach.

When I see NASA stories, I can't help but contrast them to the LHC stories. I have no beef with the LHC program -- quite the opposite. However, if it had been under NASA with the same results, there would have been cries for public beheadings by now.

Huh? The article doesn't say what would be accomplished by that one-hour joyride? Wouldn't a satellite orbiting for years be a better idea? A satellite would image more of the surface over its lifespan, and a ground based probe would actually be able to analyze actual Martian material and go back to the more interesting stuff. A rocket plane whizzing through the thin Martian atmosphere for an hour doesn't prove much more than the fact that you can whizz through the thin Martian atmosphere for an hour.

It doesn't bode well either that the project managers couldn't even be bothered to think of a different acronym from that of the ARES booster, which is a major NASA project.

More information, please.

what if they put a refueling station/satellite in a low orbit so the rocket plane can keep on going?

Locutus & Others commenting on the NASA fail......why is anyone surprised?? We took 20 years to build the ISS for an estimated 5-8 year 'active' life (fully constructed).....

It's time for NASA and others to quit building structures with the durability of fairy wings and start building them with some thought toward longevity. the cost of putting tonnage in space really has not changed, but the number of players in the game have grown very significantly. It's time to flex the Muscles of Persuasion to take the multi-party model used for ISS and truly build something worthwhile in space...

I agree with several people here. All that money spent wasted on the research of a Mars airplane that will have just a few minutes of flight time should have been spent on more realistic longer term items.

A wind riding balloon, The Windsurfer, proposed in 2003 is my favorite that pulls a surface rover that could cover over 1,500 kilometers in at least three weeks. It would have two vantage points one from the air and another one on the ground. It could also leave small robotic rovers on the surface as it sails along and when the wind isn't blowing the rover can move on the surface...

See here:

See YouTube animation here:

Here it is in a test climbing up a rocky hill:

Why not spend more research on something that would last longer?

I think this is a great mission concept, although this article doesn't do it justice. Blimps have also been proposed but have never made it as far in NASA Scout-class mission selection processes as this concept, based on scientific merit. The ARES name duplication is unfortunate, but this proposal was named before the Ares rockets were even a twinkle in NASA's eye. Before dismissing a 1-hour flight, check out the mission objectives at

Download Our iPhone App

Stay up to date on the latest news of the future of science and technology from your iPhone with full articles, images and offline viewing

Grab the Tech Buyer's Guide iPhone App

Carry everything you need to make a smart buy on HDTVs, cameras and 14 other product categories right in your pocket

Follow Us On Twitter

Featuring every article from the magazine and website, plus links from around the Web. Also see our PopSci DIY feed

Become a Fan On Facebook

Share links with friends, comment on stories and more

May 2010: Future of the Car

In our special auto-themed issue, we take a look at how the American auto industry will rise again. From futuristic concepts to our robotic driving future to a complete primer on electric vehicles, we present everything you need to learn how the cars of the future will be better, faster and cleaner--no matter who makes them.

Read the issue here.

Popular Science Photo Pool

Share your photos in the Pop Sci pool at!