From Hampton, Virginia, Langley Research Center contributes to a broad range of aerospace technologies, from making space access a routine venture, to developing down-to-Earth ideas about aircraft safety and on-time operations. Langley is also adding to our knowledge of atmospheric science, providing scientific data for informed national decision-making about our environment.
NASA's Space Launch Initiative (SLI) has been established to find a more affordable and reliable highway into space. Whether it is doing business in Earth orbit or exploring distant worlds, the toughest part of the journey is the first few hundred miles up through the atmosphere to space. Consequently, it is critical that the airframe of any future vehicle be optimized for maximum performance while incorporating minimum weight--the classic aerospace dilemma.
Langley, world renowned for its research into the performance of winged vehicles and space vehicles, will lead the development and demonstration of airframe technologies for SLI: lightweight temperature-resistant structures and materials, aerodynamics, systems engineering and analysis to help define needed technologies, and advanced cockpit technologies to improve safety and reliability. Langley is working with Marshall Space Flight Center in the development of cryogenic tanks to hold super-cold liquid hydrogen fuel, with Ames Research Center on thermal protection systems, and with Johnson Space Center on cockpit technologies.
The first experiment to be performed on the International Space Station (ISS) was contributed by Langley. The Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) is designed to evaluate the performance, stability, and long-term survivability of more than 700 materials and components planned for use by NASA, the Department of Defense, and commercial spacecraft manufacturers. "Space is a hostile environment, destructive to many materials," said William Kinard, program scientist for MISSE. "New, affordable materials are the enablers for advanced spacecraft. In-situ space testing, as provided by MISSE on the ISS, is an essential part of the development process for these new space materials."
For the next two decades, a series of robotic missions made up of orbiters, landers, and rovers will explore Mars looking for evidence of past or present life. Langley will contribute aerodynamics, aerothermodynamics, atmospheric flight simulation, guidance and control research--everything required to make a successful flight through the atmosphere of Mars. Langley performed a 70-day simulation of aerobraking around Mars for the Mars Odyssey Orbiter, launched in April 2001. One of the Center's jobs is to figure out how deep the orbiter should go on each pass. If the passes are too deep, the solar panels could burn up; if the passes are too shallow, the mission could end up in a useless orbit. For the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers, Langley is developing the end-to-end flight simulation and aerodynamic database for flight from atmospheric interface all the way to touchdown on the surface of Mars.
Another group of researchers are exploring revolutionary aircraft technologies in a program called 21st Century Aerospace Vehicle. These researchers believe that aircraft of the future will benefit by taking on some of the form and function of birds. The aircraft will have "smart" materials with embedded sensors and actuators. Sensors, like the "nerves" of a bird, will measure the pressure over the entire surface of the wing and direct the response of the actuators--the "muscles." These actuators will change the shape of the wing for optimal flying conditions. Intelligent systems made of these smart sensors, micro processors, and adaptive control systems will enable vehicles to monitor their own performance, their environment, and their operators in order to avoid crashes, mishaps, and incidents. Distributed as a network throughout the structure, they will provide the means for imbedding a "nervous system" in the structure and stimulating it to change shape. They will also serve as the means for sensing any damage or impending failure long before it becomes a problem.
In the near term, aircraft will be safer thanks to NASA contributions to the national Aviation Safety Program. For example, close calls between aircraft and ground vehicles or other planes have grown steadily in recent years, with 320 incidents reported in 1999 alone. Reducing runway incursions has become the Federal Aviation Administration's number one safety priority. In one research project, an advanced cockpit display system, developed by engineers at NASA Langley, could help prevent runway incursion incidents and near accidents on airport runways, taxiways, and ramps. The system combines a head-down display of an electronic moving map of airport runways and taxiways with a head-up screen that gives the pilot real-time guidance. The system shows and sounds an alert if another plane or vehicle is about to encroach onto the runway. The system would improve aviation safety and efficiency several ways, including allowing more aircraft to land on time in bad weather.
Airline passengers frustrated with delays at U.S. airports may be able to reach their destinations faster in the future because of advances in predicting aircraft wake turbulence on final approach. With this new technology, called Aircraft Vortex Spacing System (AVOSS), Langley developments will help airliners achieve optimal spacing and efficiency. The system determines how winds and other atmospheric conditions affect the wake vortex patterns of different types of aircraft. AVOSS uses a laser radar or lidar technology to confirm the accuracy of those forecasts. The information is processed by computers, which can then provide safe spacing criteria automatically. All aircraft produce wake vortices that act like two small, horizontal tornadoes trailing behind the wing tips that can be felt as mild-to-severe turbulence by following aircraft. Lack of an accurate prediction system forces air traffic controllers to use rigidly fixed distances to separate different classes of aircraft, especially during bad weather, causing air traffic delays that disrupt flight schedules and increase costs. AVOSS is expected to provide the information needed for safe, efficient separation, from approach to landing. AVOSS is a part of the NASA Aviation Systems Capacity Program, headquartered at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California.
A new NASA-led program, housed at Langley, called the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), will demonstrate how single-engine aircraft can offer an attractive alternative to existing transportation systems for trips from about 150 to 1,000 miles. SATS is seen as freeing people and products from existing transportation system delays, by creating access to more communities in less time. The SATS concept of operations uses small aircraft for business and personal transportation, for on-demand, point-to-point travel between smaller regional, reliever, general aviation, and other landing facilities, including heliports. The five-year SATS program will culminate in a joint NASA/FAA/industry demonstration of selected operational capabilities at designated "SATSLab" airports. The results will establish the basis for future decisions by local, state, and federal policy makers regarding SATS and air transportation.
In another study, Langley researchers are helping to document the important role of polar stratospheric clouds in the destruction of protective ozone over the Arctic. Ozone in the upper atmosphere protects plants and animals on the surface of the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. The Sage III Ozone Loss and Validation Experiment (SOLVE) revealed large-scale characteristics of polar stratospheric clouds, including their extent and chemical properties. In sunlight, these high-altitude clouds help release ozone-destroying chlorine from otherwise non-harmful gases. Once details of this process are incorporated into chemistry and climate models, scientists will have a better idea of the extent of future ozone destruction in the Arctic and the possibility of an eventual "ozone hole" over the Arctic.
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