NASA Social At NASA Armstrong (Palmdale – Part Two)


  1. My third NASA Social, the “State Of NASA” event
  2. I went back to NASA Armstrong, this time at their Palmdale facility
  3. Posts for previous NASA Armstrong events here, here, here, here, here,and here
  4. The first part of this post, focusing on SOFIA, is here (with an extra bit here)

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This is the remote-controlled model for the Towed Glider Air-Launch System being developed at NASA Armstrong. The concept is similar to Virgin Galactic’s “White Knight” aircraft, except that it’s a remotely piloted glider instead of a jet with a pilot and co-pilot.

Doing it this way introduces (they believe) some serious economies into the system. By increasing the “carry efficiency” (ratio of cargo weight to carrier vehicle weight) they can take bigger payloads (rockets). By being a glider, they can reduce the development and operational costs — all the expensive stuff (engines, life support, heavy airframe, fuel tanks) is on the standard jet (such as a military cargo jet or even a commercial business jet) used for towing.

This model has flown already, being towed by a small drone. Next they’ll fly it up to 10,000 feet, then fly it with a small rocket, then test the releasing of the rocket, then test taking it up to 10,000 feet with the rocket attached, and finally taking it up to 10,000 feet with a rocket attached and dropping the rocket (which may or may not fire).

Right now there’s no launch capability that allows someone to put 100 pounds into LEO (Low Earth Orbit). About the smallest rocket available will put 1,000 pounds into orbit for about $50M. This could allow a 100 pound payload to get into orbit for $1M or even less. Once that capability is available, there are a lot of businesses and universities that would like to use it.

Furthermore, the idea should scale up. In theory, if you build a glider the size of a 747, you could tow a rocket big enough to carry a crewed vehicle to LEO, for small fraction of the $75M+ that the Russians are currently charging for a Soyuz seat.

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On the other hand, some folks are still confused about the difference between a “towed glider” and a “toad glider.”

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Back down in the hanger after lunch, John McGrath showed us the two C-20 UAVSAR aircraft, known to us civilians as Gulfstream III business jets, albeit heavily modified.

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The Airborne Science Program at NASA Edwards covers all of the aircraft-based scientific research being conducted. Out at the NASA Armstrong facilities on Edwards Air Force Base, the primary focus is on aeronautical research. (See my posts regarding the November NASA Social there.) In Palmdale, the aircraft are operated in order to provide a platform for researchers to gather the data they need.

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Here Mr. McGrath shows us one of the pods that gets mounted under the belly of the C-20. These pods are more or less “plug and play,” so researchers and outside institutions can fill one with their instruments and equipment, then “simply” get it attached to the C-20. I suspect that it’s a bit more complex than that, but the system has been substantially streamlined to make it much faster and easier than it would be if everyone did their own designs and each one started from scratch. In this case, the pod’s instruments had just undergone a major upgrade since the newer instruments were far more sensitive than the previous instruments.

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Here you can see how this C-20 is up off its gear and surrounded by equipment. Underneath the aircraft, in the center near where the short, orange ladder is, you can see where the pods get attached, with a couple dozen connecting wires dangling down.

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This is the NASA Edwards DC-8, known to us civilians as a DC-8. It also has many modifications, including ports that allow instruments, sensors, and cameras to stick outside the airframe. In addition, many of the stock windows have been replaced with perfectly clear, optically flat windows so that cameras can be used through them without distortion.

The DC-8 allows instruments and the scientists running them to get wherever they need to be. For example, in a couple of weeks the European Space Agency’s ATV-5 cargo spacecraft will be leaving the International Space Station and re-entering to burn up and be destroyed over the South Pacific Ocean. But rather than do a “normal” destructive re-entry, the ATV-5 is heavily instrumented and will re-enter at a shallow angle to the atmosphere. This simulates how satellites enter the atmosphere when they’re making unplanned re-entries, as well as how they ultimately intend to de-orbit the International Space Station.

The instrumentation on the ATV-5 will give the engineers data on how spacecraft break up and are destroyed. The DC-8 will be based out of Tahiti for a few days, and with the ATV-5 re-enters, all of the instruments and cameras onboard will be gathering outside data to complement the data being transmitted from inside the ATV-5 as it is destroyed. (Tahiti for a few days – tough gig!)

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Brian Hobbs showed us the ER-2 aircraft, which is a civilian version of the U-2 spy plane. It can get all the way up to 70,000 feet, flying in an environment that’s very similar to actual conditions in outer space. That allows instruments being designed for use on satellites to be tested before launch and modified as necessary. In addition, the ER-2 can fly over a ground location at the same time that an orbiting satellite is flying over, allowing the instruments on the ER-2 to get the data needed to calibrate the instruments on the satellite above.

Another application the ER-2 is excellent at is meteorological research, such as the study of hurricanes. If you have instruments at the surface, instruments at several elevations up in the hurricane on aircraft or drones (see the Global Hawk or Ikahana remotely-piloted vehicles in my November posts), the ER-2 lets you get an even higher set of data by flying over the top of the storm. Having this vertical set of data can tell researchers far more than a single set of data from one altitude.

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Back in the conference room we got a demonstration of a new technology in strain gauges. On this metal plate, you can see the yellow strip down the middle – it contains sixteen sensors, which connect to that huge bundle of white cables on the desk. This is the way things are done now. On the other hand, the plate also has a “W”-shaped string of fiber optic cable coming down the right side, going back up to the right of the yellow strip of sensors, then back down and back up on the left side. That hair-thin cable has 500 sensors in it, and it connects to the one, thin, yellow cable on the desk.

Obviously if you are building a new plane, ship, car, rocket, bridge, building, or whatever and you need data on the stresses being put on the structure, it’s a lot easier and lighter to have thousands and thousands of sensors on fiber optic cables instead of dozens of sensors using conventional equipment. In addition, where now the conventional sensors are used on the first few test aircraft of a new design and then stripped out due to their weight, the fiber optic sensors can be left in place forever, giving you continuous data over the life of the aircraft.

Other potential uses of this technology would be to embed it into new buildings or add it to existing structures such as bridges. Given the way our national highway infrastructure is starting to crumble, it would be really useful to have a relatively cheap, easy, and highly accurate way to know if the girders on a bridge are cracking and failing.


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This is John Kelly, the Principal Engineer on the Towed Glider Air-Launch System (discussed above). Some of the figures he gave us were impressive.

For example, the real world carry efficiency of Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo is 0.71, which is pretty good – it carries 29,000 pounds with a 70,000 pound aircraft. The L-1011 Stargazer system from  Orbital only has a carry efficiency of 0.14, and the B-52 used by NASA to launch the X-43 test vehicle only has a carry efficiency of 0.17. But the models being tested have a carry efficiency of over 1.00 and they believe that the system eventually could have a carry efficiency as high as 2.00.

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Finally, Ron Young told us about the Flight Opportunities program that NASA Armstrong runs. In short, by using drones, balloons, and parabolic-flight aircraft (also known as a “Vomit Comet”), NASA Armstrong tried to assist businesses in getting their experiments and instruments into a “space-relevant environment.” They may not quite get you into LEO, but they can get you close or in a simulated environment. This allows you to test and refine your equipment before taking the big (and expensive) step of going to LEO.

For example, the Zero-G 3-D Printer that’s currently running experiments on the International Space Station was first tested on a parabolic-flight aircraft. Operating in twenty-second intervals of microgravity, the major bugs were worked out of the system before it went up to ISS, where it’s now working. In fact, you may have seen a picture of a small ratchet wrench that was printed on ISS just before Christmas. Mr. Young had an identical wrench that was printed on the ground for us to examine and play with – amazingly light, and it’s astonishing that it was printed in one piece, not several pieces and then assembled. This could really be the next big thing in allowing crewed spaceflight into deep space.

And there you have it! A full day of information and some incredible hands-on experiences with the people and the equipment that are doing science and pushing the boundaries of aeronautics and space flight. The NASA Armstrong staff did a wonderful job of taking care of us and I can’t wait for another chance to go back for another NASA Social in the future.

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