My question is very simple, I want to know if the Martian atmosphere is too thin to hold planes up and, if it is thick enough, how high planes could reasonably go. This is considering heat management as a non-issue with the air-pressure being the only problem. Now I don't really understand how planes fly, to the best of my knowledge planes stay in the air by the wings creating a high-pressure zone below and a low-pressure zone above, just note that. Also I would like to know if planes have a proper military use on Mars.

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    $\begingroup$ Mandatory what if: what-if.xkcd.com/30 $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2018 at 2:18
  • $\begingroup$ Depends on the plane and how it was designed. I'm sure planes made for earth won't work, but if you go fast enough your going to fly. As long as you are falling slower than the displacement caused by the curvature of the planet, its going to work. $\endgroup$
    – Shadowzee
    Aug 21, 2018 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ @conman Ditto lol $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2018 at 2:32
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    $\begingroup$ " the wings creating a high-pressure zone above and a low-pressure zone below" This is completely backwards. If you had this, it would push the plane down. Wings. $\endgroup$
    – Brythan
    Aug 21, 2018 at 2:34
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    $\begingroup$ @SydneySleeper, clarity aside, "the question does not show any research effort" is a valid reason for downvoting. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Aug 21, 2018 at 7:17

3 Answers 3


Modified Versions of Current Craft Could do it The martian atmospheric pressure is about equivalent to 100,000 ft/AGL. We have air breathing military aircraft that have flown at 90,000 ft/AGL so its not outside the realm of possibility that we could engineer an airplane to fly in the martian atmosphere, though it would need to be going very very fast to make up for the lack of oxygen by compressing as much of the thin atmosphere into the engine intake as possible. I'm thinking a plane with a seperate oxygen supply or using fuel that is mixed with a strong oxidizer to boost it up to speed where a ram-jet would be able to kick in. It would be incredibly hard to maneuver until one got up to speed.

But Helicopters Would be Better Since helicopters generate lift based on the RPM of their rotors it would use a lot less energy to have say, an electric helicopter with rotors that are designed to scoop into as much of the thin atmosphere as possible at very high RPM. The real trick is keeping the RPM of the rotors high without the tips of the rotors breaking the sound barrier. Additionally, the engineering challenge of having rotors move at higher RPM is a lot lower than having to boost up to mach 4 just to be able to get enough compression in the intake to not need to be burning on-board oxygen. On Mars a helicopter would be a lot more efficient of a flyer than a plane.

NASA Is Already Building One

All the above is why NASA's next Mar's Rover is supposedly going to be an electrically powered helicopter drone. enter image description here

Here's some links to NASA talking about it.



  • $\begingroup$ And don't forget this space.stackexchange.com/q/17176 $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Aug 21, 2018 at 15:12
  • $\begingroup$ Does the speed of sound increase as pressured decreases? If it does, the helicopter’s rotor(s) may be able to spin a little faster in the thin air. $\endgroup$
    – J F
    Aug 21, 2018 at 22:32
  • $\begingroup$ Would multi-propeler copters be useful? $\endgroup$
    – skout
    Aug 27, 2018 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ @skout practically required, especially in a contra-rotating prop configuration. $\endgroup$
    – TCAT117
    Aug 28, 2018 at 1:44

Since this XKCD comic pretty much answers your first part of the question, I'll answer the second part about whether or not they have a military use.

Planes would be even more strategically useful on Mars than on Earth

The simple reason is that weather on Mars tends to be a lot more calm than on Earth. Those massive dust storms you might see in movies like "The Martian" don't actually have enough power to do any real damage to anything.

Due to the rocky nature of the environment, land-based vehicles might have quite a bit of trouble navigating the surface. Sure, there are rovers that can do it, but they're small and not exactly fast, and can't traverse things like vast valleys and mountains, both of which Mars has in large supply.

Planes would be able to fill this role easily. Fly to the enemy, bomb it, and fly back. And why stop at planes? Airships and Zeppelins might even make a return.


NASA has done much research on airships on Mars

Planes on mars are very difficult to use because of the low air pressure. However, airships have gotten quite a bit of attention from NASA. NASA values them because they can cover much more ground than a rover could, and a similar reason would justify their military use, even if just for reconnaissance.

Here is 2017 plan for a vacuum filled airship to float on Mars. Here are plans for a lightweight, space dropped Solar Montgolfiere baloon (pictured below).

enter image description here


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