Wonder what it’s like to fly for NASA Earth science expeditions? Ask our research pilot anything!
This January, we’re kicking off five new airborne Earth science expeditions aimed at studying our home planet from the land, sea and air. Here’s your chance to hear what it’s like from the cockpit!
Research pilot Dean “Gucci” Neeley will be taking your questions in an Answer Time session on Friday, January 10 from 12-1pm ET here on NASA’s Tumblr! Find out what it’s like to fly research aircraft that use the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of Earth, improve lives and safeguard our future! Make sure to ask your question now by visiting http://nasa.tumblr.com/ask!
The orange ‘basketballs’ seen on power
lines are often a sign that you’re near an
airport. High-tension wires are easy to
see from the ground, but they get lost in
the landscape when pilots look down at
them from above. These 17lb marker balls
can also be found near mountain passes,
deep valleys, major freeway crossings,
and airports to help prevent low-flying
aircraft from hitting the power lines. SourceSource 2
10 Ways the 2010s Pushed Communication and Navigation into the Future!
We transmit vast amounts of data from space, letting all of our satellites “phone home.” Imagery from far off regions of our solar system, beautiful visions of other galaxies and insights into planet Earth flow through our communications networks.
Our Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program is dedicated to making sure we precisely track, command and control our spacecraft. All the while, they develop bold new technologies and capabilities for Artemis – our sustainable lunar exploration program that will place the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024.
As we prepare to say goodbye to the 2010s, let’s take a look at 10 of the biggest milestones in space communications and navigation of the past decade.
1. Continuous global communications? TDRS has you covered.
From 2013 to 2017, we launched three Tracking and Data Relay Satellites, or TDRS for short. These new satellites replenished a fleet that has been around since the early 1980s, allowing us to provide continuous global communications coverage into the next decade. Missions like the International Space Station depend on TDRS for 24/7 coverage, allowing our astronauts to call home day or night.
2. Binge watching on the Moon? Laser communications will make it possible.
Imagine living at the Moon. With the Artemis program, we’re making it happen! However, we can’t live there without decent internet, right? In 2013, we conducted the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD). This was the first high-speed laser communications demonstration from the Moon, transmitting data at a whopping 622 megabits per second, which is comparable to many high-speed fiber-optic connections enjoyed at home on Earth! Our LLCD sent back high-definition video with no buffering.
3. Record Breaking GPS navigation, at your service.
Space communications is just one piece of the SCaN puzzle. We do navigation too! We even break records for it. In 2016, our Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission broke the world record for highest altitude GPS fix at 43,500 miles above Earth. In 2017, they broke it again at 93,200 miles. Earlier this year, they broke it a third time at 116,200 miles from Earth — about halfway to the Moon!
Thanks to MMS, our navigation engineers believe that GPS and similar navigation constellations could play a significant role in the navigation architecture of our planned Gateway spaceship in lunar orbit!
4. Crashing planes as part of the game – of research!
9. Deep Space Station antenna introduces “beam waveguide” technology.
On October 1, 2014, in Canberra, Australia, the Deep Space Network’s Deep Space Station 35 (DSS-35) antenna went operational. It was the first of a number of new antennas built to support the growing number of deep space missions! The antenna is different from other antennas that were built before it. Older antennas had a lot of their equipment stored high up on the antenna above the dish. DSS-35 uses “beam waveguide” technology that stores that equipment underground. This makes the weight sitting on the dish much lighter, cuts down on interference and makes the antenna much easier to operate and maintain.
10. Hello, Alaska!
Last — but certainly not least — we expanded our presence in the 49th state, Alaska! While this picture might look like antennas rising from the forests of Endor, the one in the foreground is actually an antenna we installed in 2014 in partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Because of its proximity to the polar north, this 11-meter beauty is uniquely situated to pull down valuable Earth science data from our polar-orbiting spacecraft, contributing to scientists’ understanding of our changing planet!
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo Moon landing, remember that many Apollo astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, the first person on the Moon, were test pilots who flew experimental planes for NASA in our earliest days. Since long before we landed on the Moon, aeronautics has been a key piece of our mission.
The U.S. founded the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), our predecessor, in 1914. NACA, collaborating with the U.S. Air Force, pioneered the X-1 aircraft, the first crewed plane to achieve supersonic speeds. NACA was largely responsible for turning the slow, cloth-and-wood biplanes of the early 1900s into the sleek, powerful jets of today.
When NACA was absorbed by the newly formed NASA in 1958, we continued NACA’s mission, propelling American innovation in aviation. Today, our portfolio of aeronautics missions and new flight technologies is as robust as ever. Below are seven of our innovations flying out of the lab and into the air, getting you gate-to-gate safely and on time while transforming aviation into an economic engine!
Our X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) flies faster than the speed of sound without the window-shattering sonic boom. This innovation may kick off a new generation of quiet, supersonic planes that can fly over land without disturbing those below. Once adopted, QueSST’s technologies could drastically reduce the time it takes to fly across the U.S. and even to other countries worldwide!
Our X-57 Maxwell will be the first all-electric X-plane, demonstrating the benefits distributed electric propulsion may have for future aviation. The Maxwell is named for Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who is known for his theories on electricity and electromagnetism. The name is also a play on words because, as X-57 engineer Nick Borer said, “It has the maximum number of propellers.”
Our airborne science program provides Earth scientists and astrophysicists with the unique insights that can be gleaned from the air and above the clouds. By flying aircraft with Earth science instruments and advanced telescopes, we can gather high resolution data about our changing Earth and the stars above. Airborne science outreach specialist (and champion aerobatics pilot) Susan Bell highlights Fire Influence on Regional to Global Environments Experiment – Air Quality (FIREX-AQ), a joint mission with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“FIREX-AQ will investigate the impact of wildfires and agricultural fires on air quality,” Susan said. “Living in the Western U.S., I witness firsthand the impact that smoke can have on the communities we live in and up in the air as a pilot.”
Our Search and Rescue (SAR) office serves as the technology development arm of the international satellite-aided search and rescue program, Cospas-Sarsat. Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration adopted SAR’s guidance regarding the testing and installation of the NASA-developed beacons required for planes. These recommendations will greatly improve aviation beacon performance and, ultimately, save more lives.
SAR developed the recommendations through crash test research at our Langley Research Center’s gantry in Hampton, Virginia, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trained for the Apollo Moon landing!
Our Mission Adaptive Digital Composite Aerostructure Technologies (MADCAT) team at our Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley uses strong, lightweight carbon fiber composites to design airplane wings that can adapt on the fly. The composite materials are used to create “blocks,” modular units that can be arranged in repeating lattice patterns — the same crisscrossing patterns you might see in a garden fence!
Our Revolutionary Vertical Lift Technology (RVLT) project leverages the agency’s aeronautics expertise to advance vertical flight capabilities in the U.S. The RVLT project helps design and test innovative new vehicle designs, like aircraft that can take off like a helicopter but fly like a plane. Additionally, the project uses computer models of the complex airflow surrounding whirring rotors to design vehicles that make less noise!
We’re with you when you fly — even on Mars! The 1958 law that established the agency charged us with solving the problems of flight within the atmosphere… but it didn’t say WHICH atmosphere. We’re applying our aeronautics expertise to the thin atmosphere of Mars, developing technologies that will enable flight on the Red Planet. In fact, a small, robotic helicopter will accompany the Mars 2020 rover, becoming the first heavier-than-air vehicle to fly on — err, above — Mars!