NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., helped advance the agency’s overall missions of aeronautics research, Earth and space science and aerospace technology during 2015. Established 69 years ago, Armstrong is NASA’s center of excellence for atmospheric flight research.
Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge Flight Experiment
In April, NASA researchers completed initial flight-testing of a radically new morphing wing technology that has the potential to save millions of dollars annually in fuel costs, reduce drag and airframe weight, and decrease noise during takeoff and landing.
A total of 23 research flights were flown with experimental Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge (ACTE) flight control surfaces that offer significant improvements over conventional flaps. NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation project teamed with the Air Force Research Laboratory to equip a Gulfstream III jet with ACTE flaps designed and built by FlexSys, Inc., of Ann Arbor, Michigan with AFRL funding under a Small Business Innovation research contract. The test team exceeded expectations by completing all primary and secondary objectives on schedule and within budget.
UAS Integration in the National Airspace
Armstrong is the host center for the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System project, one of the nation’s most important research efforts for improving safety and reducing technical barriers and operational challenges associated with flying unmanned aircraft in airspace shared by commercial and civil air traffic.
Technical challenges include development of detect-and-avoid (DAA) standards to assure safe separation from other nearby air traffic, safety-critical command and control system standards, human systems integration issues, and integrated test and evaluation to verify and validate UAS technologies in an integrated and relevant test environment. The third phase of flight-testing was completed this year. Equipped with a prototype system of DAA sensors working in concert with airborne and ground-based computers, Armstrong’s Ikhana UAS made 11 flights involving more than 200 scripted encounters with approaching aircraft.
DC-8 High Ice Water Campaign
Future aircraft may be equipped with radar capable of warning of a certain type of potentially hazardous icing conditions at high altitude thanks to NASA’s High Ice Water Content (HIWC) research campaign.
The goal for this NASA-led effort, which also involved the FAA, The Boeing Company, and other industry partners, was to record both instrumented weather and standard radar data as the plane flew in known HIWC conditions, and then see if by comparing the data a potential HIWC radar signature could be identified.
Current weather radar can detect rain or hail, but is limited in its ability to discerning smaller sizes of ice crystals in the atmosphere. Ice crystals ingested by aircraft engines start to melt and evaporate, cooling the engine core surfaces to temperatures below freezing and causing ice to form inside the engine. This may cause temporary power loss or engine blade damage. For the 2015 campaign, which ran from Aug. 10-30, researchers aboard Armstrong’s DC-8 flying laboratory collected almost 72 hours of in-flight meteorological and radar data associated with adverse weather and thunderstorms over the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
The HIWC research team included principal investigators from NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., and Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
Commercial Supersonic Technology
Researchers continue to refine techniques for capturing images of shock waves generated by supersonic airplanes using schlieren photography.
Flow visualization is one of the fundamental tools of aeronautics research, and schlieren methods using a speckled background have been used for many years to visualize air density gradients caused by aerodynamic flow.
While this has been easy to accomplish with scale models inside a wind tunnel, capturing schlieren images of a full-scale aircraft in flight was more challenging. In February, researchers used a technique called Air-to-air Background-Oriented Schlieren (AirBOS) to photograph a supersonic T-38 against a tumbleweed-studded desert backdrop using special cameras mounted on the underside of a subsonic King Air twin-prop aircraft. Following each flight the AirBOS team used NASA-developed image processing software to remove the desert background and reveal rough shock wave images. Next, researchers combined and averaged multiple frames to produce clean and clear images of the shock waves. The team also demonstrated a ground-based method called Background-oriented Schlieren using Celestial Objects, or BOSCO. Viewing the sun through a calcium-K filter provided a satisfactory speckled backdrop for the supersonic target aircraft and, once again, the patent pending method for imaging shock waves was made possible through advanced image processing technology.
Armstrong researchers are also testing Cockpit Interactive Sonic Boom Display Avionics, or CISBoomDA, a revolutionary software system capable of displaying the location and intensity of shock waves caused by supersonic aircraft. Developed by aerospace engineer Ed Haering, technical lead for supersonic aerodynamics research at NASA Armstrong, and Ken Plotkin of Wyle Laboratories in El Segundo, Calif., this application calculates an airplane’s sonic boom footprint and provides real-time information, enabling pilots to make the necessary flight adjustments to control the impact of sonic booms on the ground.
Electric Aircraft Propulsion
The arrival of a unique experimental demonstrator at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center on February 26 may herald a future in which many aircraft are powered by electric motors.
The Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology (LEAPTech) project tested the premise that tighter propulsion-airframe integration, made possible with electric power, will deliver improved efficiency and safety, as well as environmental and economic benefits.
Over the span of several months, NASA researchers performed ground testing of a 31-foot-span, carbon composite wing section with 18 electric motors powered by lithium iron phosphate batteries. The experimental wing, called the Hybrid-Electric Integrated Systems Testbed (HEIST), was mounted on a specially modified truck. Testing on the mobile ground rig assembly provided valuable data and risk reduction applicable to future flight research. The HEIST wing section remained attached to load cells on a supporting truss while the vehicle was driven at speeds up to 70 miles per hour across a dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base.
The LEAPTech project began in 2014 when researchers from Langley and Armstrong partnered with two California companies, Empirical Systems Aerospace (ESAero) in Pismo Beach and Joby Aviation in Santa Cruz. ESAero is the prime contractor for HEIST responsible for system integration and instrumentation, while Joby is responsible for design and manufacture of the electric motors, propellers, and carbon fiber wing section. The truck experiment is a precursor to a development of a small X-plane demonstrator proposed under NASA’s Transformative Aeronautics Concepts program, and which may fly within the next few years.
Vehicle Integrated Propulsion Research
This past summer, researchers from NASA’s Transformational Aeronautics Concepts Program, Convergent Aeronautics Solutions Project, completed the third phase of the Vehicle Integrated Propulsion Research (VIPR) effort to test and evaluate new aircraft engine health management technologies.
This research incorporated smart sensors and advanced diagnostic techniques designed to improve safety and reduce costs. Over the past several years VIPR researchers have conducted experiments that introduced foreign material — liquids and particulates — into a high-bypass turbofan engine and simulated engine faults to test the effectiveness of the new sensors.
To reduce risk, all such testing was conducted on the ground under controlled conditions with an Air Force C-17 aircraft. This third phase of testing focused on the characterization of high bypass jet engines that have encountered low-concentration volcanic ash plumes in the atmosphere. For the VIPR III tests, NASA partnered with the Air Force Research Laboratory, Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing Research & Technology, Pratt and Whitney, General Electric Aviation and Rolls-Royce Liberty Works, with assistance from the U.S. Geological Survey. Researchers from four NASA centers — Armstrong, Glenn, Langley, and Ames — were involved in various aspects of research and testing. The Air Force provided a C-17 cargo transport plane and NASA Armstrong provided two F117 engines – military versions of the commercial PW2037 used on the Boeing 757.
In January, several NASA Armstrong pilots evaluated an exciting new technology known as Fused Reality that combines elements of flight simulation with actual flight experience.
The patented technology combines real world video with interactive computer generated environments to create a highly immersive training experience for practicing complex tasks such as landing, flying in formation with other aircraft, and aerial refueling.
While flying, the pilot wears a special helmet with an optical system that combines the real out-the-window view from a camera with computer-generated graphics of an airfield or another aircraft. During nine flights in a Gippsland GA-8 Airvan research aircraft owned by the National Test Pilot School in Mojave, Calif., each evaluation pilot performed a series of tasks generated by the Fused Reality system and subjectively rated the airplane’s handling qualities.
The Multi-Utility Technology Testbed (MUTT) project marked a milestone in August when researchers at Armstrong completed a series of performance envelope expansion flights.
These sorties, the first of which took place April 9, represented the first flights of the second of two X-56A air vehicles built by Lockheed Martin under a contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory. Although the airplane has thus far only been flown with conventional, stiff wings, these flights were the first tests of NASA-developed control laws that will eventually allow researchers to actively control the dynamic behavior of lightweight, flexible wings.
This control technology will hopefully lead to lighter, and therefore more efficient, flexible airfoil designs. The airplane, on loan from Lockheed Martin, is currently undergoing maintenance and modification in preparation for the next phase of flight-testing.
On Oct. 22, researchers from Armstrong and Area-I Inc. of Kennesaw, Ga., successfully conducted the maiden flight of a remotely piloted test bed for cutting edge aviation and space technologies.
The Prototype-Technology Evaluation and Research Aircraft (PTERA) is a versatile flying laboratory bridging the gap between wind-tunnel experiments and crewed flight-testing.
The PTERA aircraft is configured to resemble an 11 percent-scale Boeing 737 with a wingspan of 11.3-feet and 200-pound gross weight. Powered by two 50-pound-thrust JetCat P200 engines, each PTERA has a semi-modular airframe designed to accommodate a variety of configurations and technologies.
Engineers at Armstrong are working on an increasingly complex remotely piloted aircraft concept called the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Lower Drag, or Prandtl-D.
The design of the aircraft features a new method for determining the shape of the wing with a twist that could lead to an 11-percent reduction in fuel consumption. The concept may also lead to significantly enhanced controllability that could eliminate the need for a vertical tail and potentially to new aircraft designs.
Several radio-controlled models of increasing size have been tested over the past few years. The largest, Prandtl-D 3 with a span of 25 feet, completed initial flight trials in November. Work on the Prandtl-D also led to a concept for a future Mars airplane. If the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars, or Prandtl-M aircraft, is successful, it could be deployed from a satellite into the Martian atmosphere to collect and transmit valuable information back to Earth. Albion Bowers, NASA Armstrong chief scientist and Prandtl project manager has led the NASA effort with help from student interns.
Earth and Space Science
The airborne science aircraft at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center stayed busy in 2015, as they spanned the globe looking for answers to important questions about Earth’s climate. Each team studied a wide variety of weather phenomena, atmospheric conditions, and ground formations such as volcanoes, glaciers, and deltas. Flights took place at various locations in the United States, as well as overseas in Iceland and Chile.
Winter and spring highlights included the CalWater mission, a multiagency campaign supported by NASA’s ER-2, designed to improve understanding of when and how California ends up on the receiving end of precipitation caused by atmospheric rivers. The Global Hawk program continued its support of the Airborne Tropical Tropopause Experiment (ATTREX) mission, that tracked the transport of water vapor into the upper atmosphere and help researchers understand how greenhouse gases affect Earth’s climate.
The summer months brought ongoing flights over the Louisiana Coast by NASA’s C-20A of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR) instrument, which observed ground subsidence and sediment transport in deltas. NASA’s DC-8 also traveled to Salinas, Kansas called Plains Elevated Convection at Night (PECAN), which studied atmospheric conditions that form nighttime thunderstorms across the Mid West.
The year ended strong with the Global Hawk program supporting the NOAA-led mission called Sensing Hazards with Operational Unmanned Technology (SHOUT), aimed at improving how well weather models forecast significant events such as tropical storms, winter storms and major floods. There was also an opportunity for collaboration between the DC-8 and ER-2 aircraft as they participated in the Olympic Mountain Experiment (OLYMPEX), a comprehensive field focus on tracking precipitation over mountainous terrain that is difficult to measure. The information will be used to validate data being tracked by the Global Precipitation Measurement satellite systems, which will help scientists more accurately predict atmospheric conditions that contribute to our daily weather and global climate.
Combined, the airborne science aircraft teams completed over 1,600 science flight hours in 2015.
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) program had a very successful year with the completion of its third season of science flights. Cycle 3 flights began in March and wrapped up in mid-December, completing a total of 88 flights and 670 science hours.
In June, the observatory (a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 100-inch (2.5-meter) diameter telescope), deployed to Christchurch, New Zealand, for five weeks, where scientists were able to observe areas of the night sky that are not visible from the Northern Hemisphere. During this period, the observatory was also able to capture a special celestial event as Pluto passed directly between a distant star and the Earth on the morning of June 30, New Zealand time. This event, known as an “occultation,” caused a faint shadow of Pluto to move across the surface of Earth at more than 53,000 mph, creating a ripe opportunity for the SOFIA team to perform scientific analysis of the dwarf planet’s atmosphere. This observation was very timely helping to validate similar data collected by the New Horizons spacecraft as it made its nearest approach to Pluto two weeks later on July 14.
In addition to the scientific achievements of the SOFIA team, the program also worked to expand professional development opportunities for science educators across the United States and Germany through the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA) program. This peer-reviewed, professional development program for educators is in its third year. In 2015 the AAA program hosted a total of 36 teachers on board science flights. This experience gave educators the unique opportunity to interact with researchers and aircraft crew, and to witness scientific research first-hand. After their flight experiences, ambassadors were able to take what they learned from the program into their classroom and communities to relate the scientific discovery process and its value to society.
In September, five educators participating in the ambassador program boldly went where no ambassadors had gone before – into the stratosphere with Nichelle Nichols, actress, cultural icon, and science advocate. Playing Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, the first major African American female role on TV, Nichols used her role to touch the lives of many people, a responsibility she carried out with purpose by recruiting women and underserved candidates for NASA and science careers. Nichols continued this commitment as she flew on SOFIA, and promoted the program by hosting a live Twitter chat from onboard the plane. Nichols also spent time with each of the educators, encouraging them to give students hope to dream big on their career goals.
SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. The aircraft is based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center facility in Palmdale, Calif. NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, is home to the SOFIA Science Center that is managed by NASA in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Md., and the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart.
Flight Opportunities Program
NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, part of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, funded flights through two commercial suborbital space companies and two balloon companies, and six parabolic campaigns on NASA’s C-9 aircraft for researchers developing technologies that are of interest to NASA.
The program flew 30 technology payloads in 2015 over the course of 21 parabolic flights, four suborbital reusable launch vehicle test flights and four balloon flights. Among the technologies tested was a sensor package from Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh that was flown on a vertical launch, vertical landing rocket from Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif. This sensor package can analyze large pits in the surface of moon or Mars that may lead to openings of caves.
Another successful suborbital test flight was conducted by UP Aerospace Corporation of Highlands Ranch, Colo., with the launch of its SpaceLoft-10 sounding rocket. The flight demonstrated a new capability for that vehicle to eject a payload in space to renter separately for testing descent and landing technologies.
The program’s newest commercial near-space balloon provider, World View of Tucson, Ariz., successfully launched its Tycho balloon to flight test two university experiments. One of these experiments was the University of Central Florida’s mid-infrared, intra-cavity laser absorption spectrometer. This lightweight and low power device can be used to detect trace gases in Earth’s atmosphere and in atmospheres of other planets or moons during future planetary missions.
The Flight Opportunities program also selected six technologies for flight demonstration grants through the STMD SpaceTech Research Development, Demonstration and Infusion, or REDDI-15 NASA Research Announcement.
During an open call for companies that can provide suborbital flights services, NASA awarded an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract to New Space Corporation, Tillamook, Ore. Near Space Corporation joins four other commercial firms that Flight Opportunities has on contract to provide test flights for new technologies.
The program also released an announcement for public-private partnership opportunities to assist in the development of technologies for suborbital and nano-launchers. The Flight Opportunities Program is managed at Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif.
Armstrong’s Office of Education provided eight educator professional development workshops in 2015 at the Educator Resource Center at the Aerospace Education Research Operations, or AERO, Institute in Palmdale, Calif. Examples of workshops are NASA is With You When You Fly: Principles of Flight, Journey to Mars: Rocketry, and Earth Right Now: Atmosphere.
Education held numerous K-12 student events throughout the year such as: Rockets to the Rescue for Arizona 4H and Southern California’s 4H as well as the Boys and Girls Clubs. Journey to Mars was presented to K-6 students at Gregg Anderson Academy in Palmdale, California.
Armstrong’s education office manages the Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Institutional Research Opportunity (MIRO) for the agency. MIRO provides funding for minority serving institutions (MSIs) for research and to assist students in attaining degrees in NASA STEM related fields. Ten new MSIs received awards totaling nearly $47 million.
The office provided internships through the AERO Institute and the Universities Space Research Association with a record high of 90 student interns, which almost doubled the total annual number of student interns from 2014.
In October, the Office of Education jointly with AIAA and the AERO Institute held a Mars Airplane Live event for high school and college students, educators, industry representatives and the public. The live event allowed the participants to learn about Mars and how Prandtl-M may one day be the first airplane to glide through the Martian atmosphere.