‘Nanocardboard’ flyers could serve as Martian atmospheric probes

This summer, NASA plans to launch its next Mars rover, Perseverance, which will carry with it the first aircraft to ever fly on another planet, the Mars Helicopter. As the first of its kind, the Mars Helicopter will carry no instruments and collect no data—NASA describes merely flying it all as “high-risk, high-reward” research. 

Graphic rendering of nanocardboard
In this artist’s conception, fleets of flyers could be launched from ground-based rovers and steered with lasers to collect samples. Planets and moons with thin atmospheres and low gravities would enhance these flyers’ ability to levitate by shooting air through their corrugated channels. (Image: Penn Engineering)

With the risks of extraterrestrial flight in mind, Penn Engineers are suggesting a different approach to exploring the skies of other worlds: a fleet of tiny aircraft that each weigh about as much as a fruit fly and have no moving parts.

These flyers are plates of nanocardboard, which levitate when bright light is shone on them. As one side of the plate heats up, the temperature differential gets air circulating through its hollow structure and shooting out of the corrugated channels that give it its name, thrusting it off the ground.

A recently published study demonstrates nanocardboard’s flying and payload-carrying abilities in an environment similar to that of Mars. The thinner atmosphere there would give the flyers a boost, enabling them to carry payloads ten times as massive as they are. The weaker Martian gravity would further enhance their capabilities.

The study, published in the journal Advanced Materialswas led by Igor Bargatin, Class of 1965 Term Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM), and John Cortes, then a graduate student in his lab. Fellow lab members, Christopher Stanczak, Mohsen Azadi, Maanav Narula, Samuel M. Nicaise and MEAM Professor and master’s program chair Howard Hu also contributed to the study.

“The Mars Helicopter is very exciting, but it’s still a single, complicated machine,” Bargatin says. “If anything goes wrong, your experiment is over, since there’s no way of fixing it. We’re proposing an entirely different approach that doesn’t put all of your eggs in one basket.”

Read more at Penn Engineering.