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NASA Exhibits Futuristic Technology at NextFest

By Gray Creech
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

Futuristic NASA aerospace vehicles and visionary technology join innovations from others adorning the old pier warehouse pavilion of NextFest 2004, a Wired Magazine event held May 14-16 at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, Calif.

The event, already with many visitors on its first day, highlights advances in several fields, including communication, design, exploration, and transportation.

Personal Exploration Rover on exhibit at NextFest
Students visiting NextFest check out small Personal Exploration Rovers from NASA's Ames Research Center. NASA photo by Dominic Hart.

NASA's unique technology exhibited prominently at NextFest includes a scale laser beam-powered aircraft, an X-43A hypersonic scramjet display, advanced sub-vocal software, and a scaled airship designed to explore one of the moons of Saturn.

The laser-powered aircraft display explains flight demonstrations of the technology in September 2003, when researchers from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., and Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., and the University of Alabama in Huntsville conducted groundbreaking flights of a small-scale aircraft that flew solely by means of propulsive power from a ground-based laser.

Though the NextFest venue precludes flying the laser plane, NASA experts are on hand to explain the technology. Flights of the lightweight, radio-controlled model airplane inside a large building at NASA Marshall are believed to be the first time that a plane has been powered only by laser energy. The demonstration was a key step toward the capability to beam power to an aircraft, allowing it to stay in flight indefinitely. The concept holds potential for the scientific community as well as for the remote sensing and telecommunications industries.

NASA's laser plane flew at NASA Marshall
With a laser beam centered on its photovoltaic cells powering the motor, NASA's laser plane flew at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center last September. NASA photo by Tom Tschida.

Visitors to the X-43A exhibit are treated to information on the hypersonic research aircraft's successful March 27 flight, which was the first time an airbreathing supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet, powered aircraft has flown freely. The unpiloted vehicle reached its test speed of Mach 7, or seven times the speed of sound. A third flight, slated to speed to Mach 10, is planned for later this year.

For sub-vocal software, scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center have begun to computerize silent reading using nerve signals in the throat that control speech. In preliminary experiments, they found that small, button-sized sensors, stuck under the chin and on either side of the Adam's apple, could gather nerve signals, send them to a processor, then on to a computer program that translates them into words. Eventually, such sub-vocal speech systems could be used in spacesuits, in noisy places like airport towers to capture air-traffic controller commands, or even in traditional voice-recognition programs to increase accuracy.

Baseline design studies suggest that airships are good candidates for the post-Cassini exploration of Saturn's moon Titan. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's scaled airship is designed to investigate key technical aspects of airship configuration, propulsion system, navigation and control concepts.

A unique combination of dense atmosphere, low gravity and small temperature variations make Titan well suited for studies with this type of buoyant robotic vehicle, called an aerobot. Moreover, since methane clouds obscure the entire surface, aerial platforms flying below the clouds are the only means of getting high-resolution global mapping of the Titan surface in the visible and infrared wavelengths.

Propeller-driven aerobots are essentially airships that can move to specific locations on Titan, rather than being constrained to travel with the prevailing winds. Such vehicles also can be used for studies of the surface, either through combined airship/rover concepts or through winching down an instrumented surface platform from a station-keeping airship.

On Saturday, May 15, at 5 p.m. PDT, NASA Space Architect Gary Martin and Dr. James Luyten, Executive Vice President and Director of Research for The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, are scheduled to participate in a panel discussion entitled "The Future, Above and Below: A Conversation with Two Pioneers in Space and Deep-Sea Exploration."