Last December, NASA received an enormous cash boost for 2016-bringing their funding to well over 19 billion dollars. Shortly after, the administration announced it was ready to cash in with some big plans.
"This increased funding will allow us to do something that NASA has not done in decades, to partner with industry and build a new series of experimental aircraft, or X-Planes." reiterated Charles Bolden, NASA's chief administrator, at a press conference at the NASA Ames's Research Center yesterday.
The majority of these new experimental aircraft will be focused on pursing an increasingly important goal: producing greener commercial airliners. During the press conference, NASA gave reporters a peek at the first design of one such X-Plane.
It's a commercial airliner with some very strange wings, which NASA hopes could replace the Airbus 320 or Boeing 737 by 2030. It could carry 150 passengers and travel at 75 percent of the speed of sound. "It would knock the socks off a Boeing 737. It'll cut fuel use by more than 50 percent," says Bolden.
The airliner, currently unnamed, has truss-braced wings, the need for which wind-tunnel testing made evident. In addition to the cut fuel consumption, the plane "would also be at least six times quieter and cut emissions by 80 percent" compared to an Airbus 320 or Boeing 737, says Nateri Madavan, a project manager of NASA's air transport technology division. The design was co-developed by Boeing, and has been a work in progress for roughly 7 years.
Madavan explains that this "revolutionary plane" owes it's insane boost in fuel efficiency to incredibly slender wings. The slenderness of the plane's wings increases the jet's aerodynamical properties-cutting down on drag-while the truss keeps those flimsy wings from snapping clean off.
The balance between slenderness and strength is one that aerospace engineers have juggled for decades, but have yet to master. The key issue is finding a way to develop a strong truss that doesn't create any unintended aerodynamical wackiness that might eliminate the efficiencies of the slender wings in the first place. Madavan says that all evidence suggests that this new design cleanly solves that puzzle.
Right now NASA is currently testing a scale model of the truss-braced jetliner in their 11 by 11-foot transonic wind tunnel. The last few weeks have focused on trying the dynamical properties at the joint where the truss meets the wing, "which we affectionately call the armpit," says Madavan.