Spaceflight Insider

NASA Armstrong event highlights supersonic flight research

A NASA F/A-18 demonstrates different volumes of sonic booms for attendees of a NASA Social at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. Photo Credit: NASA / Lauren Hughes

A NASA F/A-18 demonstrates different volumes of sonic booms for attendees of a NASA Social at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. Photo Credit: NASA / Lauren Hughes

On Tuesday, May 31, NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California hosted a NASA Social event highlighting two of the center’s research projects. One on reducing sonic booms created by supersonic aircraft, and the other on safely integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also called drones, into the National Airspace System (NAS).  

A 1/20 scale model of Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) demonstrator plane. Photo Credit: SpaceFlight Insider / Jim Sharkey

A 1/20 scale model of Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) demonstrator plane. Photo Credit: SpaceFlight Insider / Jim Sharkey

About 45 social media representatives, as well as several traditional media organizations, listened to presentations and panel discussions on NASA’s research to reduce the sound caused by aircraft traveling at supersonic speeds.

One other topic detailed was the research being conducted at NASA Armstrong to develop “Sense and Avoid” technology for UAS. This should assist pilots in maintaining a safe distance between them and other aircraft.

NASA recently awarded Lockheed Martin with a contract to design the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) demonstrator plane. QueSST will be a 94.2-foot (28.7-meter) long, single engine, piloted aircraft. The concept for this sound-reducing supersonic plane will utilize many commercially systems to reduce costs.

While the QueSST will be smaller than future commercial supersonic aircraft, it will be designed so that it will produce sonic booms comparable to a larger aircraft.

Following the presentations, the attendees went outside to witness a demonstration of sonic booms from a NASA F/A-18 supersonic jet. Flying level, the aircraft produced a loud sonic boom, which measured in at 104 decibels. Chief Test Pilot Nils Larson then put the aircraft through a series of dive maneuvers designed to generate softer sonic booms close in volume to those expected to be created by the QueSST plane.

“The first sonic boom was shocking,” NASA Social attendee and Boise State physics major Philip Belzeski told SpaceFlight Insider. “I was startled. The other demonstration flights sounded more like dropping a mattress (from an aircraft).”

The afternoon session began with talks by Laurie Grindle, NASA UAS-NAS project manager, and Sam Kim, NASA UAS-NAS integrated test engineer, on research being conducted at NASA Armstrong to safety integrate remotely piloted aircraft into the National Airspace Systems. This work involves efforts by all four NASA aeronautical centers including Armstrong, Ames in California, Glenn in Ohio, and Langley in Virginia.

Chief NASA Armstrong Test Pilot Nils Larson (right) in front of the F/A-18 aircraft he flew during the sonic boom demonstration. Photo Credit: Jim Sharkey/ SpaceFlight Insider

Chief NASA Armstrong Test Pilot Nils Larson, right, in front of the F/A-18 aircraft he flew during the sonic boom demonstration. Photo Credit: Jim Sharkey / SpaceFlight Insider

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations include a provision requiring that a UAS have the ability to see and avoid other aircraft.

To meet that requirement, UAS industry partners have developed a “Sense and Avoid” technology to help a remote pilot maintain a safe separation from other traffic.

NASA’s remotely piloted Ikhana aircraft is being used to test sensors that detect other aircraft at further distances.

Other aircraft with similar equipment are called “Cooperative Aircraft” in the simulations. Aircraft lacking this equipment, like most general aviation aircraft, are considered non-cooperative aircraft and Ikhana has radar that it uses to detect them. Ground displays provide the remote pilot with information, such as traffic alerts, that allow the pilot to remain clear on congested airspace.

“There still is a pilot in the loop on the ground and in communication with the aircraft,” Kim explained. “Many systems are autonomous, but there are a lot of human factors.”

Following the talks and panel question and answer sessions, attendees toured NASA Armstrong hangars where they were able to meet NASA test pilots and see research aircraft including the F/A-18 used in the supersonic demonstration and the remotely piloted Ikhana aircraft used in the UAS research.

Attendees also visited the hangar housing NASA’s autonomous high-altitude Global Hawk aircraft. These aircraft are used in atmospheric and weather research and are capable of flying above hurricanes and staying aloft for 24 hours. During hurricane season, the they are flown out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

NASA's remotely piloted Ikhana aircraft is being used to test sensors that help remote pilots maintain an safe distance from other aircraft. Photo Credit: Jim Sharkey / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s remotely piloted Ikhana aircraft is being used to test sensors that help remote pilots maintain a safe distance from other aircraft. Photo Credit: Jim Sharkey / SpaceFlight Insider

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Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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