To mark the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first airplane flight NASA wants to stage a similar event on Mars.
The NASA budget for 2000 contains $50 million to begin development of a Mars airplane. It will be fully automated and the first airplane designed to explore an alien planet.
An animated video played at the budget briefing showed a small, pilotless plane parachuting toward the sandy surface, unfolding its wings and propeller, then puttering off.
In actuality, much about the plane remains to be determined, including actual design, means of propulsion and delivery to Mars, NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin said.
Flying in Mars' atmosphere is like flying at 100,000 to 130,000 feet above Earth's surface, he said, so a lot research still needs to be done. A long-range jetliner flies at an altitude of about 30,000 feet.
There is also an eight-minute time lag for radio messages between Earth and Mars, complicating the control of the unmanned plane.
The goal, if all goes well, is to make the flight in 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers flight, though NASA's briefing papers admitted it could slip to 2005.
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