Flight Testing for Mars for Dryden F-18 Flying MSL Radar

Southern California’s high desert has been a stand-in for Mars for NASA technology testing many times over the years. So it was again as NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory flight-tested the next Mars rover’s landing radar, using an F/A-18 aircraft.

The Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL mission, is following up the grand success of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which tirelessly explored Mars for the last seven years. The MSL mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term robotic exploration effort of the red planet. The mission is managed by JPL in Pasadena, Calif.

NASA Dryden’s F/A-18 carried a Quick Test Experimental Pod, or QTEP, that housed the MSL test radar, attached underneath the aircraft’s left wing. The flight profile was designed to have the F/A-18 climb to 40,000 feet, then make a series of subsonic, stair-step dives over Rogers Dry Lake at angles of 40 to 90 degrees in order to simulate what the MSL’s radar will see during entry into the Martian atmosphere. The F/A-18 pulled out of each dive at 5,000 feet.

“Not only has the working relationship between Dryden and JPL been exemplary, but we're proving the viability of suborbital flight testing of critical space hardware,” says Mike Holtz, Dryden’s MSL project lead and F/A-18 backseat flight test engineer. “This has been a unique opportunity to test equipment in a representative environment prior to the space flight hardware blasting off to Mars,” Holtz says.

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