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NASA Langley Year In Review: 2012 Highlights

NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., celebrates a year of accomplishments that stretched near, far and wide. Credit: NASA/Kathy Marshall-Guild

Researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center are celebrating a year of aerospace accomplishments that took their work not only into the skies, but also to another planet. Here are some of the highlights for 2012. Read through and then offer up some other center highlights in the comments section below the feature.

The Curiosity Rover lands safely on Mars

Curiosity rover on Mars.
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This image shows a close-up of track marks from the first test drive of NASA's Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

More than 100 engineers, researchers and technicians here played a critical role in the successful Aug. 6 landing of the Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover on the Red Planet. NASA's Langley Research Center was the agency lead for modeling and simulation of the spacecraft prior to launch. Millions of simulations were performed leading up to the entry, descent and landing phase -- the so-called, "Seven Minutes of Terror," leading to touchdown. Another contribution was the MSL Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation (MEDLI), a science instrument package built primarily at Langley that gathered heat and temperature data during the last eight minutes of the flight. Langley engineers also developed a mini-computer on the Curiosity rover that commands the ChemCam, a rock-blasting laser that vaporizes thin layers of material from Martian rocks or soil.


Inflatable spacecraft technology launches and successfully survives reentry

IRVE-3 launch.
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The Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) was launched by sounding rocket at 7:01 a.m. Monday from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

NASA is one step closer to developing an inflatable spacecraft heat shield that could survive the superheated hypersonic speeds of entry into a planetary atmosphere, following the successful July 23 launch of the Langley-led Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment 3 (IRVE-3). The giant cone of uninflated high-tech rings, covered by a thermal blanket, launched from a 22-inch diameter sounding rocket for its suborbital flight from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. Once it reached an altitude of 290 miles, an inflation system pumped up the IRVE-3 aeroshell until it expanded to almost 10 feet in diameter. The inflated mushroom-shaped vehicle then plummeted through Earth’s atmosphere at more than Mach 10, or about 7,000 miles an hour. Researchers are studying temperature and pressure data collected during the mission to help develop future inflatable heat shield designs and to confirm that inflatable spacecraft technology could some day become practical for exploration of other worlds or as a way to safely return items from the International Space Station to Earth.


Orion model splashes down, while SLS model gets tunnel tested

Orion vertical drop.

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Dropped from only 2.25-feet, the 18,000 pound Orion test article still makes a sizable splash in the first vertical drop test at NASA Langley's Hydro Impact Basin. Credit: NASA/Michael Finneran

An 18,000-pound test article that mimics the size and weight of NASA's Orion spacecraft crew module — the next generation capsule that will carry astronauts into space beyond low Earth orbit and return them safely home — completed a final series of water impact tests in Langley's Hydro Impact Basin in September. The campaign of swing and vertical drop tests simulated various water landing scenarios to account for different velocities, parachute deployments, entry angles, wave heights and wind conditions the spacecraft could encounter when landing in the Pacific Ocean. The next round of water impact testing is scheduled to begin as soon as late 2013 using a full-sized model that was built to validate the flight vehicle's productionprocesses and tools. The Orion will go into space aboard a heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System or SLS, also currently in development and testing. A 10-foot-long model of the SLS was put through buffet testing in NASA Langley's Transonic Dynamics Tunnel this fall to capture data that will help determine the structural safety margins of the vehicle,especially during launch and ascent to orbit at transonic and low supersonic speeds up to Mach 1.2.


Langley images SpaceX launch, while Dream Chaser model "flies" in tests

Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System (MARS) camera and telescope system on a gyro-stablized tracking mount

A NASA Langley team will capture long range images of the SpaceX launch with the help of a sophisticated camera and telescope system that's on a gyro-stablized tracking mount. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

The successful SpaceX launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule on May 22 marked the first commercial spaceflight carrying cargo to the International Space Station. It was also captured in visual and thermal imagery by the Scientifically Calibrated In Flight Imagery (SCIFLI) team, based here at Langley. SCIFLI had two long-range optical systems trained on the SpaceX launch: one on the ground near Daytona Beach, Fla., and the other on board the former space shuttle solid rocket booster recovery ship, Freedom Star, off the northeastern U.S. coast. Mother Nature was good to one of the teams, less charitable to the other. Another of NASA's commercial space partners, Sierra Nevada Corporation, tested a buffet model of its Dream Chaser lifting body spacecraft in Langley's Transonic Dynamics Tunnel in the spring. The scale model, based on the Langley HL-20 design, was mated to a scale version of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket for the test. Engineers looked at the pressure fluctuations the model and stack experienced during simulated launch and ascent to orbit, especially at transonic speeds. This kind of data is important because the Dream Chaser is a blunt-nosed winged body, a potentially complex spacecraft shape to fly on the tip of a rocket.


Hypersonic scramjet is on HIFiRE

HiFire launch.
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The Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation Program (HIFiRE) launches an experimental hypersonic scramjet vehicle from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii during a recent research flight. Credit: AFRL

A team that included engineers from NASA Langley and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) celebrated the successful May launch of an experimental hypersonic scramjet research flight from the Pacific Missile Range Facility. located on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. NASA, AFRL and Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Organisation are working with a number of partners on the HIFiRE (Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation Program) program to advance hypersonic flight – normally defined as beginning at Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound. During the experiment the scramjet climbed to about 100,000 feet in altitude aboard a sounding rocket, accelerated from Mach 6 to Mach 8, and operated about 12 seconds – a big accomplishment for flight at hypersonic speeds. It was the fourth of a planned series of up to 10 flights under HIFiRE and the second focused on scramjet engine research. "This is the first time we have flight tested a hydrocarbon-fueled scramjet accelerating from Mach 6 to Mach 8," said NASA Langley hypersonics expert Ken Rock. "This test has given us unique scientific data about scramjets transitioning from subsonic to supersonic combustion – something we can't simulate in wind tunnels.”


NASA Langley Earth science works to increase Earth monitoring from space

CERES first light.
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Extra-vehicular activity (EVA) with Langley-built avionics box. Credit: NASA

Three NASA Langley Earth science projects moved forward in 2012. The Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) instrument started scanning Earth from space for the first time in January. It is observing Earth atmospheric conditions from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite. CERES continuously measures the amount of energy leaving the Earth-atmosphere system, allowing scientists to determine the planet's energy balance. A NASA Langley team is moving forward with preparations for a planned 2014 launch of the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment (SAGE III) that will be mounted to the orbiting International Space Station. Components of SAGE III on ISS, which will measure aerosols, ozone, water vapor and other gases in Earth's atmosphere, are currently undergoing testing here. The instrument is set to launch on a SpaceXFalcon 9 rocket. And finally a team managed by NASA Langley has won a proposal to build the first space-based instrument that will monitor major air pollutants across the North American continent by taking hourly measurements during daytime hours. The Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO) instrument that is to be completed in 2017 will share a ride on a commercial satellite to an orbit about 22,000 miles above Earth's equator.


NASA Langley advances "Look Ma, no hands" aircraft research

N. Dakota flight test demonstration team -- Artie Jessup (left), principal investigator Harry Verstynen (center) and project manager Frank Jones (right)

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The Cirrus SR-22 aircraft can also be remotely piloted from the ground. Seen here in the Langley ground station are hardware technician Artie Jessup (left), principal investigator Harry Verstynen (center) and project manager Frank Jones (right) -- all part of the North Dakota flight test demonstration team. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

NASA Langley is part of ongoing research efforts to help allow more use of unmanned aircraft systems in U.S. skies. This fall, a team comprised of government, a not-for-profit research and development organization and academia completed two weeks of flight testing "sense and avoid" technology that could one day help unmanned aircraft better integrate into the national air transportation system. The MITRE Corporation and the University of North Dakota (UND) developed automatic sense and avoid computer software algorithms that were uploaded onto NASA Langley's Cirrus SR-22 aircraft. The plane flew 147 maneuvers during 39 hours of flight tests in airspace near the Grand Forks International Airport. A supporting UND aircraft flew more than 40 hours during the tests. The data from the flight test will validate work done in simulation and help engineers determine how they can design systems so that unmanned aircraft can be safely incorporated into the skies.


Richard Whitcomb enshrined in the Aviation Hall of Fame

Richard Whitcomb inducted into Hall of Fame.
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National Aviation Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Credit: NASA/Rich Wahls

Aeronautics engineer Richard T. Whitcomb, whose legendary NASA research contributions made supersonic flight practical, joined other aerospace pioneers in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, in October. Whitcomb, who died in 2009 but had spent his entire career at NASALangley, made three of the most significant and practical contributions to aeronautics in the 20th century, including the "area rule," supercritical wing and winglets. "Dick Whitcomb's intellectual fingerprints are on virtually every commercial aircraft flying today," said Tom Crouch, noted aviation historian at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.


NASA Langley celebrates 95 years of service, accomplishments

Guests in the hangar at Open House.
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About 10,000 people visited NASA's Langley Research Center on Saturday, September 22nd for the 95th Anniversary Open House. Foot traffic covered the sidewalks, with guests having the option of 21 tour stops, and dozens of hands-on activities and exhibits. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

NASA Langley celebrated its 95th anniversary with its first open house in five years on Sept. 22. Established in 1917 as the nation's first civilian aeronautics lab, Langley later became the birthplace of the U.S. space program and continues its legacy of aerospace research and development. More than 100 guests including representatives from local, regional, state and federal government, industry representatives, and colleagues from other NASA centers, participated in NASA Langley's 95th Anniversary VIP Day, which provided an opportunity for collaborative solutions. About 10,000 people attended the Open House event, touring 22 facilities; enjoying dozens of hands-on activities and exhibits; seeing presentations from astronaut Anna Fisher, the first mom in space; and watching a live splash test of the 18,000-pound model of the America's next space capsule, Orion.


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