The smallest member of NASA Dryden Flight Research Center’s research aircraft fleet successfully flew to new heights recently to validate its potential as a tow plane for a scale model of a rocket-launching glider.
A Dryden Remotely Operated Integrated Drone, or DROID, a modified radio-controlled Super Flyin’ King model aircraft designed by Bruce Tharpe Engineering, flew to an altitude of 10,000 feet over Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. Researchers are flying the DROID, whose wing spans about 10 feet, to test the Towed Glider Air-Launch Concept, a proposed technique to horizontally launch a rocket into near-Earth orbit from a towed glider.
“(Doing this) feels great. We have been wanting to do this for some time now and had the window of opportunity,” said Mike Marston, the DROID project lead.
Not only did the small DROID – one of four such aircraft at the center – fly higher than it ever had before, it also showed it has enough excess thrust to tow a scale model of a glider and rocket. During the test flight, researchers also gathered data for developing a DROID flight simulator.
If the DROID team can prove the concept on a small scale, it is one step closer to potentially launching a rocket from a glider towed by a large passenger or cargo aircraft. This concept could make small payload, near-Earth orbit launches far less expensive than present launch methods.
The Towed Glider Air-Launch Concept, conceived by NASA Dryden aeronautics engineer Gerald Budd, is an in-house effort supported by the center’s research innovation fund.