NASA green-lights $16.5 million to advance future jets

NASA says new jets will be three generations ahead of airliners in use today

nasa/northrop
NASA said this week four research teams would split $16.5 million to continue developing quieter, cleaner, and more fuel-efficient jets that the agency says will be three generations ahead of airliners in use today.

NASA said the money was awarded after an 18-month study of all manner of advanced technologies from alloys, ceramic or fiber composites, carbon nanotube and fiber optic cabling to self-healing skin, hybrid electric engines, folding wings, double fuselages and virtual reality windows to come up with a series of aircraft designs that could end up taking you on a business trip by about 2030.

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Under the contracts, teams from Boeing, Northrop Grumman, MIT, Cessna will develop models that can be tested in computer simulations, laboratories and wind tunnels.

The projects look like this:

The Boeing Company's Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research, or SUGAR is a twin-engine aircraft with hybrid propulsion technology, a tube-shaped body and a truss-braced wing mounted to the top. Compared to the typical wing used today, the SUGAR Volt wing is longer from tip to tip, shorter from leading edge to trailing edge, and has less sweep. It also may include hinges to fold the wings while parked close together at airport gates. Projected advances in battery technology enable a unique, hybrid turbo-electric propulsion system. The aircraft's engines could use both fuel to burn in the engine's core, and electricity to turn the turbofan when the core is powered down ($8.8 million)

MIT's 180-passenger D8 "double bubble" fuses two aircraft bodies together lengthwise and mounts three turbofan jet engines on the tail. Important components of the MIT concept are the use of composite materials for lower weight and turbofan engines with an ultra high bypass ratio (meaning air flow through the core of the engine is even smaller, while air flow through the duct surrounding the core is substantially larger, than in a conventional engine) for more efficient thrust. In a reversal of current design trends the MIT concept increases the bypass ratio by minimizing expansion of the overall diameter of the engine and shrinking the diameter of the jet exhaust instead ($4.6 million).

Northrop Grumman will test models of the leading edge of a jet's wing. If engineers can design a smooth edge without the current standard slats, airplanes would be quieter and consume less fuel at cruise altitudes because of the smoother flow of air over the wings ($1.2 million).

Cessna will focus on airplane structure, particularly the aircraft outer covering. Engineers are trying to develop what some call a "magic skin" that can protect planes against lightning, electromagnetic interference, extreme temperatures and object impacts. The skin would heal itself if punctured or torn and help insulate the cabin from noise, NASA says ($1.9 million).

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