NASA’s airplanes of the future

NASA’s airplanes of the future
What will air transportation look like in 2030? The American Space Agency is giving it some thought.

This design from Boeing is based on an airplane where the widened fuselage plays the role of a wing. Such an aircraft would replace the American manufacturer’s current 777.Credit: NASA/Boeing

NASA is obviously a space agency, but we often forget that it is also responsible for the aeronautical sector as its full name indicates: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In this respect, the agency has been working since 2008 with American manufacturers and research institutes on the future of air transportation with a time horizon of 2030.

Airplanes that create less pollution and less noise
The themes identified by NASA together with Boeing, Northrop, Lockheed, General Electric as well as the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) make use of cutting-edge technologies such as fuselages made of composite materials, shape memory alloys, virtual reality windows, etc. The study that was carried out and that is to continue is based on 4 major priorities: to reduce the pollutants released by the reactors, to vastly diminish fuel consumption, to fight against noise and to design airplanes capable of using airports situated in urban areas, which means shorter runways.

Studied by General Electric, this small 20-seater airplane would be for air transportation between urban areas.
Credit: NASA/GE Aviation

Aircraft that are silent, economical as regards kerosene and able to carry twenty or so passengers have therefore been envisaged for short flights between towns. Other airplanes seating from 120 to 180 passengers target transportation across the North American continent with such ambitious objectives as reducing fuel costs by 70%! This is to be achieved, notably, through the use of skins that boost air penetration, long wings that can be folded once they are on the ground and even a hybrid propeller propulsion system combining standard kerosene and electric power from fuel cells. We would reiterate that the fuel cell, discovered in 1830, has been widely developed by the space industry and is to be found aboard NASA’s space shuttles.

Boeing’s SUGAR (Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research) is decidedly ecological with an impressive wingspan (the wings can be folded when on the ground) and hybrid propeller engines combining conventional fuel and electric power.
Credit: NASA/Boeing

The return of supersonic airplanes?
Amongst the ideas put forward, it was highlighted that reducing the airplane cruising speed to Mach 0.7 (856 km/h) instead of the usual Mach 0.85 (1,040 km/h) would already lead to substantial savings without excessively extending journey times.

Envisaged by MIT, this D8 concept is based on two adjoined fuselages with three reactors of a new type situated at the rear. This airplane would transport 180 passengers at Mach 0.74 and would meet the air requirements currently fulfilled by the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320.
Credit: NASA/MIT

And yet, NASA has not excluded returning to the supersonic commercial transportation which stopped in 2003 with the decommissioning of the Franco-British Concorde. In fact, certain air routes (we could cite flights to Australia) would significantly benefit from a journey completed in a shorter time period. But carrying passengers faster than the speed of sound would bring with it new challenges in relation to those skilfully resolved by the designers of the 100-seater Concorde in the 1960’s (the first flight was made in 1969 and commercial flights began in 1976).

Will 2030 see the return of supersonic airplanes? This concept from Lockheed Martin uses several innovative solutions to reduce fuel consumption and to minimise the impact of the sonic boom.
Crédit : NASA/Lockheed Martin

In addition to a far greater seating capacity in order to make the exploitation economically viable according to current day criteria, the 2030 supersonic airplane will target the environment by being, above all, particularly economical as regards fuel and will also reduce the impact of the famous sonic boom. The reduction of noise nuisance would be such, that this aircraft could be authorised to fly over land at supersonic speeds, which would strengthen its commercial advantages.

The designs put forward are not necessarily revolutionary such as this study from Northrop for a 120-seater airplane. Here, progress is hidden under conventional lines, as composite materials combined with better performance reactors make it possible to reduce fuel consumption and pollution whilst minimising noise nuisance.
Crédit : NASA/Northrop

Published on 23 May 2010