NASA Armstrong partners with industry to achieve aeronautics, space milestones

NASA photograph by Carla Thomas

Test flights of the Prandtl-M have resumed. The airframe also is the basis for another aircraft that will collect weather data.

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., supported the agency in 2017 by advancing flight research through a number of center milestones.

From Armstrong’s modified Gulfstream III aircraft’s support of the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse, to the center’s F-18’s extensive supersonic research, Armstrong never fails to demonstrate its passion and dedication to building a stronger foundation for the future of aerospace.

The center’s research continues to become increasingly recognizable through its ability to partner with the aviation and space industry contributing to the nation’s efforts to provide more sustainable, affordable and safe flight research.

As the agency works to integrate NASA technology into commercial airspace, Armstrong is at the forefront of not only leading the development of various flight technologies, but is also supporting NASA aeronautics by demonstrating these technologies in flight and sharing the results with the aviation industry and the public.

The center also continues its tradition of early approach and landing flight research and testing for new spacecraft. Through accomplishing dynamic flight research and sharing with industry, academia and other government communities, Armstrong is facilitating an understanding of aeronautics concepts and demonstrating the role that flight will play in the nation’s future.

A total solar eclipse was seen on Aug. 21, 2017, from onboard NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s Gulfstream III at 25,000 feet above the Oregon coast.

Armstrong continues to contribute to aeronautics research, development and testing within the agency. Conveying to the public the technology, engineering and flight research Armstrong is pursuing remains a priority for the center. The center’s team of dedicated researchers and engineers continue to support NASA and the aerospace industry by developing new and innovative technology that will provide the nation with ground breaking flight milestones toward the future of aeronautics.

Here are just some of Armstrong highlights in 2017:

* CST – Commercial Supersonic Technology
NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology project accomplished several major milestones in 2017, furthering efforts to advance supersonic research. In June, NASA reached a milestone by completing a preliminary design review, or PDR, of a joint effort with Lockheed Martin to develop a supersonic design, called Quiet Supersonic Technology, or QueSST. The completion of the PDR in June marks a critical point in NASA’s efforts to develop a Low Boom Flight Demonstration aircraft, or LBFD, that can fly beyond Mach 1 without creating a loud sonic boom.

The April completion of the second series of Background Oriented Schlieren using Celestial Objects flights, or BOSCO II, marked another essential accomplishment for the project. When LBFD takes to the skies, confirming its shockwaves through imagery will require high-tech photographic equipment to be small enough to fit in an airborne pod. In addition to validating the quality of smaller equipment for this technique, BOSCO II successfully applied schlieren photography from a range of 10,000 feet.

During the total solar eclipse, the Sun’s corona, only visible during the total eclipse, is shown as a crown of white flares from the surface.

In August, teams from Armstrong and NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia deployed to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a series of flights called Sonic Boom in Atmospheric Turbulence, or SonicBAT. The series was critical in gathering data to study the effect of humid atmospheric turbulence on sonic booms. The successful completion of the series in early September will help NASA validate models for sonic boom signatures. The flights marked a significant collaboration between NASA’s resources and efforts in aeronautics with the historic space center.

NASA also began a flight series focused on studying ways to increase the efficiency of supersonic aircraft wings. The Swept Wing Laminar Flow flight series included the use of an experimental wing on the underside of an F-15 jet, studying the ability of increased laminar flow to overcome a barrier of fuel efficiency for supersonic aircraft.

* X-57 Maxwell
The accomplishments of the X-57 team in 2017 were essential as NASA’s first manned X-plane in two decades prepares for flight in 2018. The year’s milestones for the X-57 Maxwell include the successful ground vibration testing of the fuselage in Mojave, Calif., as well as the delivery of a baseline fuselage to the project’s prime contractor, Empirical Systems Aerospace also in California. The delivery of the fuselage began the transformation of the aircraft to become an electric propulsion-powered aircraft. Engineers will perform integration procedures for the X-plane’s Modification-III wing, while the aircraft’s Modification-II test flights will begin in 2018 at Armstrong.

Another critical milestone was reached in late November, with the successful testing of the X-57’s battery system. Validating an 800-pound battery system for NASA’s first all-electric X-plane is no minor task, and extensive testing, redesign, and re-testing of the system was all performed in 2017. November’s testing accomplished two key validations of the battery system. One of these was the validation that the battery system has the necessary capacity to power an entire X-57 flight profile. The other test confirmed that the battery system would be kept safe in the event of one battery cell overheating and experiencing a thermal runaway event, which happens when overheating affects adjacent cells. This was addressed by successfully isolating a triggered thermal runaway to a single battery cell, signifying the system’s ability to keep both pilot and aircraft safe from the spread of overheating.

The X-56A is scheduled for November flights to further investigate how highly-flexible, lightweight wings function.

* ARM – Acoustic Research Measurement
October brought further success through flight testing of a NASA technology that can reduce airframe noise during landing. The Acoustic Research Measurement flights effectively applied two NASA research areas into one effort. One of these research areas was Landing Gear Noise Reduction, which included NASA technology applied to the landing gear of a NASA Gulfstream III aircraft, making the airframe noise around the gear and its cavities quieter. The other area included NASA’s Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge research, which studied a flexible wing flap’s ability to increase aircraft efficiency. In this case, researchers were interested in the acoustic benefits of the flap. This technology may lead to quieter noise for communities who live near airports and under flight paths.

* X-56A
The subscale aircraft, X-56A, completed a number of flights in 2017 to further investigate how highly-flexible, lightweight wings function. Through successful validation of technologies onboard X-56A, the aircraft is now scheduled for a series of research flights set to continue in early 2018 to prove enabling technology for designing aircraft with highly flexible, lightweight wings. The use of less structurally-rigid wings could be critical to future long-range, fuel-efficient airliners. 

These types of wings are susceptible to a destructive vibration known as flutter at lower speeds. If those vibrations are not alleviated, they could cause controllability challenges or potentially compromise the aircraft’s structure. Flutter has not been restrained before on an aircraft like the X-56. Flutter suppression could lead to improved ride quality, efficiency, safety and the longevity of flexible aircraft structures.

Integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems into the National Airspace System required extensive research, testing and technology validation. NASA Armstrong is dedicated to using a number of aircraft to achieve this objective. The remotely piloted Ikhana served as the main airborne platform for the detect and avoid flight tests in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and industry partners to continue to evolve safe separation and collision avoidance systems. Four flight campaigns in 2017 included more than 944 encounters to date for the UAS Integration in the National Airspace System, project.

A U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School T-38 is captured, using a special filtered camera on the ground, flying in front of the sun. Shockwaves are seen beginning to form as the vehicle transitions from a subsonic speed to supersonic.

Researchers are planning on a major step toward incorporating these large UAS into the NAS with an Ikhana demonstration flight in 2018. For the first time a UAS will fly in the NAS, outside of Class A and Special Use Airspace, without an escort “chase” aircraft. Previous UAS flights in the NAS were permitted only with special FAA permission and required an escort aircraft to act as the aircraft’s “eyes” to see and avoid other aircraft.

During the flight demonstration planned next year from Armstrong, Ikhana will be using its own DAA systems integrated onboard the aircraft and its ground control station to maintain safe separation and avoid other aircraft.

The Ikhana unescorted aircraft flight demonstration objectives are to engage the FAA air traffic and safety organizations to seek approval for an operationally representative route of flight showing a safety case that provides an alternative means of complying with see and avoid regulations through the use of Ikhana’s DAA system. This demonstration will lay a foundation for future certification and operational approval process for the UAS-NASA project in partnership with industry academia and other government agencies.

* Prandtl
The increasingly complex subscale aircraft called the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Lower Drag, or Prandtl-D, is showing the value of wings designed with a unique wing configuration that incorporates a significant twist in the wing shape. It’s that twist that makes them significantly more efficient than conventional wings.

Initially a Langley technology, Armstrong further developed the Fiber Optic Sensing System (FOSS) to be tested on the aircraft during the year and installation has started on a FOSS electronic measurement system that is expected to gather data from sensors on the wings in flight to verify the aircraft’s efficiency. The Prandtl-D research, which has been bolstered by student interns, has resulted in a patent for the wing design method and another for propellers using the same geometric elements as the Prandtl-D wing design.

Educators shine a flashlight onto a toy bear to simulate the physics behind solar eclipses.

* Airborne Science
The airborne science aircraft at NASA Armstrong had a busy year as they supported Earth science research missions under the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. Examining air quality, volcanos, storms, coral reefs using science instruments, the center’s aircraft served a variety of different missions to help further NASA’s understanding of our home planet. The aircraft also aided with disaster response efforts for both Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and the Southern California wildfires.

Here are highlights from NASA Armstrong’s Airborne Science Program in 2017:

* ATom
The DC-8 aircraft embarked on two 26-day trips around the world in January and October for the Atmospheric Tomography (ATom) mission.  Scientists onboard were measuring airborne particles and more than 200 gases from the remotest parts of the atmosphere, to better understand the processes that govern how various greenhouse gases cycle around the world.  Stops included Alaska, Hawaii, Ascension Island, Fiji, Portugal, New Zealand and Chile. The team will complete its final round of flight observations in April 2018.

* HyspIRI Hawaii
In late January, scientists from NASA, the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and several universities embarked on a six-week field campaign to study the links between volcanic gases and thermal emissions on vegetation’s health and the extent of the effects from volcano eruptions. The mission also studied the flow of lava from the volcanoes, thermal anomalies, gas plumes, active volcanic processes and explored ways to mitigate volcanic hazards. Scientists collected data both on the ground and from NASA’s ER-2.

The campaign, which also studied Hawaii’s coral reefs, will provide precursor data for NASA’s Hyperspectral Infrared Imager (HyspIRI) satellite mission concept to study Earth ecosystems and natural hazards such as volcanoes, wildfires and drought.

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy is shown inside the Lufthansa Technik hangar in Hamburg, Germany where it is undergoing its C-Check maintenance period.

In June, the DC-8 headed to Ft. Lauderdale in Florida for the Convective Processes Experiment, collecting detailed data on wind, temperature and humidity in the air below the plane during the birth, growth and decay of convective clouds, which are clouds formed by warm, moist air rising off the subtropical waters around Florida. The goal of the research was to aid improvement of weather models and to test capabilities of the Doppler Aerosol Wind Lidar instrument, managed by Langley. Ultimately, this data will aid meteorologists’ ability to answer some of the most fundamental questions about weather: Where will it rain? When? How much?

A group of 32 students from colleges and universities across the United States completed a NASA summer internship designed to provide them with an airborne Earth science research experience. The 2017 NASA Student Airborne Research Program participants flew onboard one NASA research aircraft including the NASA C-23 Sherpa and a Langley UC-12 King-Air  where they assisted in the operation of air sampling and used remote sensing instruments. Students also participated in taking measurements at field sites.

In addition, students used ocean and land remote sensing data collected for them over Santa Barbara by the NASA ER-2. 2017 was the first time three aircraft were airborne simultaneously collecting data for the SARP as well as the first time that the Sherpa and King Air flew as part of the program.

In August, a group of NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists teamed up for an airborne mission focused on studying severe storm processes and intensification. The Hand-On Project Experience Eastern Pacific Origins and Characteristics of Hurricanes field campaign utilized NASA’s Global Hawk autonomous aircraft to study storms in the Northern Hemisphere to learn more about how storms intensify as they brew out over the ocean. The team overflew areas of the Gulf of Mexico, and observed Hurricane Harvey while it was still tropical storm status.

NASA Student Airborne Research Program interns pose for a group shot in front of the NASA C-23 Sherpa between science flights during the 2017 summer program.

* Hurricane Harvey and California Wildfire Support
Multiple NASA aircraft supported disaster relief efforts during the wildfire and hurricane seasons, including the C-20A and ER-2. The agency’s C-20A aircraft headed to Austin, Texas in late August to support Hurricane Harvey emergency relief.  Using the Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar instrument, a team of scientists mapped flooded regions to better assist agencies like FEMA on their response efforts.

The high-altitude ER-2 also surveyed multiple Southern California wildfires during December using the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena Airborne Visible Infrared Spectrometer instrument. Using AVIRIS the team was able to get a more accurate picture of fuel sources and fire temperatures below, which will ultimately aid authorities in developing fuel maps for preventative and real-time response to wildfire situations.

In August and September, NASA’s C-20A headed to Alaska and Canada where the team supported airborne data collection for the Arctic Boreal and Vulnerability Experiment field mission. ABoVE scientists are using satellites and aircraft to study 2.5 million square miles of arctic tundra, forests, permafrost and lakes as it changes in a warming climate. With support from NASA’s Terrestrial Ecology Program, ABoVE researchers are investigating questions about the role of climate in wildfires, permafrost thaw, wildlife migration habits, insect outbreaks and more.


* Commercial Crew and Cargo Service Programs to the International Space Station
Dream Chaser
NASA Armstrong continues to serve a critical role in the testing and validation of spacecraft technology. Most notably in 2017, Armstrong served as the testing site for Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft.

NASA’s DC-8 takes off from Fort Lauderdale International Airport during a science flight for the Convective Processes Experiment.

Armstrong’s heritage of flight testing new spacecraft continued with the approach and landing flight test that was successfully achieved in November. By supporting aerospace industry leaders like SNC, NASA Armstrong continues to develop public-private relationships that are leading the way in the development of U.S. human spaceflight systems and technology allowing for validation of the nation’s transportation capabilities to space.

Flight Opportunities program
In 2017, The Flight Opportunities program (FO) funded flights on one suborbital vehicle, two vertical take-off and vertical landing flight campaigns, three high-altitude balloon flights and three parabolic campaigns for researchers developing technologies that are of interest to NASA and the commercial space industry. The program supports the advancement of innovative space technologies using commercial vehicles providing members of industry, academia, other government agencies, and international partners a number of platforms to demonstrate key space capabilities.

Here are highlights from NASA Armstrong’s support of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program in 2017:

Blue Origin
Blue Origin successfully launched its New Shepard reusable space vehicle on Dec. 12 carrying a medical technology, which FO program paid for its flight, that could potentially treat chest trauma in a space environment.

“This flight marks the first of many Flight Opportunities’ flights of payloads with Blue Origin,” said Ryan Dibley, NASA Flight Opportunities campaign manager for Blue Origin. “New Shepard brings new capabilities to the program. This launch platform allows for larger payloads, provides lower launch accelerations, and maintains a sealed pressure environment.”

Scientists aboard NASA’s DC-8 observe convective clouds over the Caribbean Sea during their June 10 science flight for the Convective Processes Experiment.

A micro satellite space launch company, Vector had two successful launches using a 3_D additive manufacturing injector. The latest in manufacturing technology, a 3D printer built the injector that does not need assembly since it is built in one piece. The company was selected by an Announcement for Collaboration Opportunity released by the FO program that allows the company to work with NASA engineers and use NASA facilities to build the injector.

World View’s Stratollite
World View performed flight tests that successfully demonstrated their altitude control technology. This technology has the potential to eliminate technological challenges that come with long-duration weather balloon flights. Not only does their technology act as a large-area satellite for the stratosphere, it also has the potential to decrease the time, cost and complexity that science payload missions regularly encounter. As this technology continues to prove its ability for long-duration controlled flight, future implications for the technology include: disaster relief efforts, long-term storm tracking, or even homeland security missions.

Near Space Corporation
A drone released from a Near Space’s high-altitude balloon carried Federal Aviation Administration technologies that could help the FAA detect and track commercial spacecraft entering the national air space as it descends from space.

NASA’s ER-2 prepares for a science flight over the Hawaiian Islands for a NASA-led mission, called Hyperspectral InfraRed Imager, focused on observing coral reef health and volcano emissions and eruptions.

Masten Space Systems
Using Masten VTVL vehicle, NASA flight tested landing sensor and navigation technologies. These entry, descent and landing technologies are needed to target specific landing sites that have been unreachable with current technologies. One component, the Lander Vision System, previously tested at Masten, will know be on the Mars 2020 rover.

ZERO-G Corporation
Parabolic flights included tests of a comet sample verification system, a Biosleeve that has sensors embedded for natural movement, a long-duration space rocket propellant, thermal systems for heat removal and a robotic system designed to traverse and inspect structures in space.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)  team revealed several major scientific results this year, while also completing two successful deployments to Christchurch, New Zealand and Daytona Beach, Florida. The observatory has continued to make unique discoveries about our solar system and beyond, while providing capability to be in the right place at the right time for rare astronomical events that most other telescopes cannot observe.

New Horizons MU69 Observations
SOFIA supported the New Horizons mission’s flyby of Pluto in July 2015  that lead to this year’s continued support of the New Horizons mission with an occultation observation of 2014 MU69. To observe 2014 MU69, SOFIA flew north from Christchurch, New Zealand, to a point south of Fiji, to witness the object pass in front of a distant star.

SOFIA detected what appeared to be a very short drop-out in the star’s light that could be perceived as another object or “moon” around MU69.

A view from NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s ER-2 aircraft shows smoke plumes, from roughly 65,000 feet, produced by the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, Calif., Dec. 7, 2017.

Finding Cool Dust Around Energetic Active Black Holes
Researchers at the University of Texas in San Antonio used observations from SOFIA,  to discover that the dust obscuring the central black hole is more compact then the researchers had assumed.

“Using SOFIA, we were able to obtain the most spatially detailed observations possible at these wavelengths, allowing us to make new discoveries on the characterization of active galactic nuclei dust tori,” said Lindsay Fuller, graduate student at the University of Texas San Antonio and lead author of the published paper.

Comet’s First Passage Through the Solar System Reveal Unexpected Secrets
Onboard SOFIA, an University of Minnesota team observed Comet C/2012 K1 that could lead to new insights into the evolution of the early solar system.

While missions like the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, or NASA’s Stardust mission provide direct sampling of comet materials, the remote observations from SOFIA provide researchers with an opportunity to understand similarities and differences between different types of comets.

New Zealand Deployment
In June, SOFIA deployed to New Zealand to conduct seven weeks of observing flights from the Southern Hemisphere. Researchers studied the Supernova 1987A, as well as star formation in two nearby galaxies called the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. SOFIA also chased the shadow of a Kuiper Belt Object called MU 69, which is New Horizons spacecraft’s next flyby target.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, sits on the ramp at Daytona Beach International Airport with a passing thunderstorm in the background before sunset.

Observing Neptune’s Moon Triton
The SOFIA team headed to Daytona Beach, Florida in October for a two-minute to study the atmosphere of Neptune’s moon Triton as it casts a faint shadow on Earth’s surface. This was the first chance to investigate Triton’s atmosphere in 16 years.

The data collected by SOFIA’s 100-inch (2.5-meter) on board telescope and three powerful instruments enabled researchers to better study and characterize Neptune’s moon’s atmosphere, including its temperature, pressure and density.

Solar Eclipse Support
For the first time in 99 years, a total solar eclipse crossed the entire nation on Aug. 21.

NASA Armstrong’s  modified G-III aircraft flew along the path of totality to provide the public with a live view of the solar eclipse from 25,000 feet. The aircraft was modified with upgraded windows and communications equipment to enable high-definition video to be streamed live to NASA TV as the eclipse began on the West Coast, enabling citizen science and allowing the Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen to expound on his excitement to experience a total solar eclipse at 25,000 feet.

NASA’s Ikhana aircraft could be the first large unmanned aircraft system to fly in the National Airspace System without the requirement of an escort aircraft in 2018 outside of Class A and Special Use Airspace.

Armstrong’s Office of Education leads and develops educational programs that support both educators and youth interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

NASA Armstrong’s Educator Resource Center at the AERO Institute, provides internship programs and in-person educational experiences that have contributed significantly to NASA’s commitment to education in 2017. 

The education office held 13 educator workshops, welcomed 317 educator participants and supported the growth and development of over 100 students through internship opportunities.

Here are highlights on NASA Armstrong’s contribution to Education in 2017:

NASA’s Beginning Engineering, Science and Technology (BEST) offered a number of unique professional development opportunities for educators across the nation. BEST not only provides instructional guides on the engineering design process, but offers educators the chance to visit Armstrong for hands-on workshops to support the integration of the engineering design process to younger audiences.

Armstrong also offered 38 community college students from across the country, the opportunity to participate in NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) workshops at the AERO Institute. The engineer design workshops give students an authentic engineering experience at NASA, which concluded with students competing in a Mars LEGO rover competition.

The Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Lower Drag aircraft, or Prandtl-D, is just about to release from the bungee that is used to launch it.