Planetary exploration using CubeSat deployed sailplanes

Adrien Bouskela, Alexandre Kling, Aman Chandra, Tristan Schuler, Sergey Shkarayev, Jekan Thangavelautham

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


Exploration of terrestrial planets such as Mars are conducted using orbiters, landers and rovers. Cameras and instruments onboard orbiters have enabled global mapping of Mars at low spatial resolution (~ 1km). Landers and rovers such as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) carry state-of-the-art instruments to extensively characterize small localized areas. This leaves a critical gap in exploration capabilities: a mesoscale view mapping regions with one meter-scale resolution over hundreds of kilometers. A high science return/low cost solution is to deploy one or more sailplanes in the Martian atmosphere as secondary payloads deployed during Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) of a MSL-class vehicle. These are packaged into 12U/24kg CubeSats, occupying some of the 190 kg of available ballasts. Sailplanes extend inflatable-wings to soar without power limitations by exploiting atmospheric features such as thermal updrafts for static soaring, and wind gradients for dynamic soaring. Such flight patterns have been proven effective on Earth, and demonstrated similarities between Earth and Mars show strong potential for a long lasting airborne science platform on Mars. The maneuverability of sailplanes offer distinct advantages over other exploration vehicles: they provide continuous reconnaissance of areas of interest from multiple viewpoints and altitudes with dedicated science instruments, achieving higher pixel-scale resolutions than orbital assets and enabling exploration capabilities over rugged terrain such as Valles Marineris, steep crater walls and the Martian highlands that remain inaccessible for the foreseeable future due to current EDL technology limitations. In this paper, we extend our work on CubeSat-sized sailplanes with detailed design studies of different aircraft configurations and payloads, identifying generalized design principles for autonomous sailplane-based surface reconnaissance and science applications. We further analyze potential wing deployment technologies, including conventional inflatables with hardened membranes, use of composite inflatables, and quick-setting foam. We study two environments including canyon soaring over Valles Marineris and at Jerezo crater, the landing site for NASA's 2020 rover. Possible flight patterns at Jerezo crater are identified using the Mars Regional Atmospheric Modeling System (MRAMS) to provide realistic atmospheric conditions. We revisit the feasibility of the Mars Sailplane concept, comparing it to previously proposed solutions, and identifying pathways to build laboratory prototypes for high-altitude Earth based testing. Finally, our work will analyze the implications of this technology for exploring other planetary bodies with atmospheres, including Venus and Titan.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberIAC-19_B4_8_13_x54022
JournalProceedings of the International Astronautical Congress, IAC
StatePublished - 2019
Event70th International Astronautical Congress, IAC 2019 - Washington, United States
Duration: Oct 21 2019Oct 25 2019


  • Atmosphere
  • Blimp
  • CubeSat
  • Dynamic soaring
  • Mars
  • Sailplane

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Planetary exploration using CubeSat deployed sailplanes'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this