Up until now, NASA's only sent slow-moving rovers and stationery landers to the surface of Mars. So here's the new plan: a rocket-powered, robotic plane that would soar a mile over the Martian landscape at 450 miles per hour, exposing hundreds of miles of unexplored country.
Of course, all that mobility comes at a price, and it's a pretty heavy toll in terms of operational time. We're talking only two hours of flight here NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers, by comparison, were supposed to function for a handful of months, but have lasted six years. The Phoenix lander didn't give up easily either.
It's called the ARES (or the Aerial Regional-Scale Environmental Surveyor), and it'll spend its two hours surveying nearly 1,000 miles of Mars, casing the atmosphere, looking for water and trying to get a feel for the planet's crustal magnetism. Magnetic pockets could be important to future manned missions as it'd help shield astronauts from harmful, high-energy solar winds.
It's obviously expensive to send this kind of scientific equipment to Mars, and the logistics of landing a plane there and then having it take off after is a bit daunting. NASA has that figured out, though — the agency won't have the ARES land at all.
According to Popular Science:
Enveloped in an aeroshell similar to the ones that deployed the rovers, ARES would detach from a carrier craft about 12 hours from the Martian surface. At about 20 miles up, the aeroshell would open, ARES would extend its folded wings and tail, and the rockets would fire. It sounds somewhat complicated, but compared with actually landing package full of sensitive scientific instruments on the surface deploying ARES is relatively simple.
Simple? We don't know about that, but it is at least a bit more elegant than smashing a probe into the moon.