|Theoretically, impact craters may influence the magnetic properties of the surrounding area. The ICE2002 team will conduct ground magnetometer surveys and additionally will look at the area with a unique tool that, for the first time, combines an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) plane with a magnetometer (an instrument for measuring the magnitude and direction of a magnetic field) a MAGPLANE. The magnetometer is one specially constructed by Dr. Mario Acuna and his team for the mission. The scientists anticipate that the magnetometer will detect a magnetic signature associated with the circular Iturralde feature thus providing more evidence that the Iturralde is an impact crater.
The MAGPLANE, with a wingspan of 11 feet, will also carry a video camera to record approximately the first hour of the three-hour flight over the terrain. Prior to take-off, scientists will program a flight path into its autopilot system so its "pilot" will only need to control it with a remote control during take-off and landing. The autopilot has a Global Positioning System (GPS) that allows the MAGPLANE to know where it is geographically at all times.
"These Unmanned Aerial Vehicles may look like toys, but they are far from it," said Patrick Coronado, leader of the MAGPLANE construction team at Goddard. "They have similar technology components and science data gathering requirements as a NASA spacecraft, with the added complexity of having to navigate through the elements and over extreme and dangerous terrain all by itself."
Powered by a modified weed-whacker engine, the MAGPLANE will fly over the suspected crater 10 times. In the case of a crash landing, an emergency locator beacon aboard the MAGPLANE will help scientists locate the plane within 90 miles of their location. An on-board computer also with a GPS will collect data from the mission state of health of the plane, location and direction of the plane and science data and relay the information to a ground station on-site and to the Internet via satellite.
Overcoming the difficulties of developing a tool with such capabilities took the ingenuity and collaboration of engineers and scientists with quite different specialties UAV experts, magnetometer experts, electronics experts, etc. The MAGPLANE had to be fuel-efficient and capable of carrying numerous instruments. Further, the magnetometer readings are affected by both the movement of the plane and electronics aboard it. The MAGPLANE team devised a way to take these effects into account to get accurate readings of the suspected craters magnetic field. This is truly a proof of concept designed for ICE2002 and the future.