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NASA Unveils Designs For Next Generation of Airplanes

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Newscom

The three designs -- from Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin -- are part of a set of contracts to study advanced concept designs for airplanes that will eventually replace the planes flown today. "Each design has to fly up to 85 percent of the speed of sound; cover a range of approximately 7,000 miles; and carry between 50,000 and 100,000 pounds of payload, either passengers or cargo" all while producing "less noise, cleaner exhaust and lower fuel consumption," according to a NASA press article.

Boeing spokesman Thomas Koehler told TPM in an email, "This research will help provide a more cohesive reference to guide thinking and research beyond the next generation of aircraft. It will help identify areas that may provide the most benefit to the commercial aviation industry and society."

The contracts are just the first in a series spread out over the coming years to encourage the development of technology for the generation of planes-- the N+2 generation, in NASA parlance. Initial proposals were due on July 15, 2010, and the entire project had a budget of 36.6 million dollars. Boeing was awarded a $5.29 million contract; Lockheed Martin was awarded a $2.99 million; and Northrop Grumman received a $2.65 million dollar contract.

Turning these concepts into airplanes that can complement or replace current fleets will be a long process. The preliminary studies based on these designs will conclude in September 2011. After NASA selects the design features it sees as promising, it will fund the design and testing of one or two unmanned, test models. If all goes according to schedule, these smaller mock-ups could be in the air in 2015.

The designs are intended to identify possible new technologies that will "reduce noise, emissions and fuel burn in the 2025 (or beyond) time frame," according to the contract solicitation (PDF). Instead of aiming for a single improvement beyond planes currently in use, like energy efficiency or quiet operations, NASA demanded improvements across the board.

An aerospace industry insider noted, however, one major concern with NASA's current research contracts. "Industry concern at the moment is that there are no manned programs in the design for the first time in 100 years. We've always had a manned program -- either military or civilian -- continuously. With no program in place, you can lose the ability to design new and innovative planes," the source told TPM.

And how hard it will be for designers and engineers to meet NASA's requirements remains an open-ended question. Boeing's Koehler noted that the point of these early concept designs was to begin to gauge how difficult the designs will be to produce. "That is the key objective of the research -- to identify the critical technologies and lay out plans for development," he said.

Boeing's concept involves a number of new technologies added to meet NASA's design requirements. The shape of Boeing's concept "offers the potential for higher aerodynamic efficiency," said Koehler, while the placement of the engines above the body "will provide shielding of the engine's fan, core and exhaust noise." His email noted that efficient "propulsion integration and how to achieve effective noise shielding will be important technology studies during this contract."

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Saying the concepts must "achieve ambitious environmental goals," the contracts highlight NASA's concern for improving the environmental profile of air transportation. NASA's call for proposals notes that the "air transportation system over the next 20 years will increase emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), water vapor, and particulates, and the number of people exposed to airport noise."

The 2025 designs are only one of a number of programs NASA has initiated to encourage forward-thinking aeronautical designs. A set of concept studies were completed in May 2010 by General Electric, MIT, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing for production airplanes for the N+3 generation of planes. Those planes are intended to fly slower (Mach .7 instead of Mach .8) but at higher altitudes to conserve fuel. NASA also commissioned a study to determine the viability of supersonic passenger transport planes. The planes would be designed to travel at approximately twice the speed of conventional planes and carry at least 100 passengers.