Pioneer Astronautics has demonstrated a new technology for flying around Mars.

The new flight system is called a gashopper. The vehicle system works by acquiring CO2 from the Martian atmosphere with a pump (Mars atmosphere is 95% CO2) , storing it in liquid form, then sending it through a preheated pellet bed to turn it into hot rocket exhaust to produce thrust for a flight vehicle.

The flight vehicle could either be a ballistic vehicle similar to the DCX vertical takeoff rocket, or a winged airplane that would take off and land like a Harrier, then transition to horizontal flight.

On Mars, a ballistic gashopper would be capable of flights of tens of kilometers per hop. A winged aircraft would be capable of hundreds of kilometers per flight.

After each landing, a small rover could be deployed for local exploration. While it is doing this, the gashopper would refuel from the atmosphere, using power from the solar panels on its wings to drive its CO2 acquisition pump. This procedure would take about a month, then the rover would be recalled, the pellet bed reheated, and the gashopper flown to a distant landing site to explore again.

The net result is a system that can fly repeatedly on Mars, conducting numerous aerial surveys and surface exploration at many diverse sites with a single spacecraft. Furthermore, unlike surface rovers, the gashopper would not be blocked by terrain obstacles. Also, since its exhaust is CO2, it would not contaminate landing sites with organics from a conventional rocket exhaust (which might confuse sensors looking for indigenous organics).

In a series of tests conducted during the final weeks of July, 2005, Pioneer Astronautics demonstrated the gashopper concept in flight at the Platte Valley airport near Brighton, Colorado. The test vehicle, named “Mars Ship One,” was run through fast taxi tests, then flown at speeds between 60 and 100 mph.

Mars Ship One has a wingspan of 14 ft and a dry mass of 118 lb, making it a full scale representative in mass and size of a gashopper airplane that might be used on a robotic mars exploration . During the late July tests, flight ranges of about 1660 ft were obtained, with the pellet bed preheated to 800 C and 13 lbs of propellant in the tank. On Mars, with a hotter pellet bed, high rocket nozzle expansion ratios, 1/3 Earth gravity, lighter aerospace grade materials, larger propellant loads, and higher flight speeds, such a system could be expected to travel about 100 kilometers per flight.

The Gashopper airplane program was funded by NASA Langley Research Center with an SBIR Phase 1 contract to Pioneer Astronautics. Robert Zubrin was the Principal Investigator at Pioneer Astronautics, while Chris Kuhl was the program Technical Monitor at NASA Langley. Other members of the Pioneer Astronautics team included: Gary Snyder, Electronics Lead; Dan Harber, Aerodynamics Lead; Nick Jameson, Mechanisms design; Mike Hurley, Pilot; Kyle Johnson, Intern, and James Kilgore, Machinist.

“We call her ‘Mars Ship One,’” Dr. Zubrin said, “because the desert skies of Mars are its oceans, and she is the first craft designed to navigate them. A 1600 ft flight is a humble beginning for Martian aviation, but then so was the 700 ft achieved at Kitty Hawk. All great things start out small. Someday vehicles descended from her with give us the freedom to travel at will across the Red Planet.”

Mars Ship one will be on display for public viewing at the 8th International Mars Society Convention, university of Colorado, Boulder, August 11-14, 2005. Information about and Registration for the Convention is now open at

Photos of Mars Ship one during takeoff and flight, and the Pioneer gashopper team are shown below. To see a video clip of Mars Ship one in flight, click the link below.

The Pioneer Astronautics Mars Gashopper Airplane Team. From left: Gary Snyder, Dan Harber, Nick Jameson, James Kilgore, Robert Zubrin, and pilot Mike Hurley.