NASA Has a History of Crashing Helicopters for Science

In a video reminiscent of Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, NASA dropped a 45 ft long Marine CH-46E helicopter fuselage into the dusty ground at NASA’s Langley Research Center. NASA reports that the helicopter, having plummeted from 30 feet in the air, smashed into the ground at 30 mph. This was a simulation of a survivable crash, but the 15 crash-test dummies locked inside did not have a smooth ride. At the conclusion of the video posted by NASA, one almost expects to hear Mythbuster Adam Savage giggle.

Perhaps smashing things does make NASA engineers giggle; they have a history of crashing helicopters and other experimental aerial vehicles. In 2009, the U.S. Army donated an MD-500 helicopter to NASA, according to a NASA press release. What did NASA do with it? They crashed it (“for science”). The initial test had a “deployable energy absorber,” a Kevlar honeycomb design originally intended to cushion space capsules. Miraculously, the helicopter survived the first test relatively intact, thanks to the new technology.

Four months later, NASA explained that it had dropped the helicopter a second time. This time, however, the MD-500 had no honeycomb cushion. As a result, the helicopter was too damaged for further testing. Engineers had recorded over three times the “g” forces compared to the previous test with the cushion. The picture below shows the windscreen shattered and the skids bent. It was destructive testing, indeed.

However, unlike Mythbusters, NASA conducts the tests for more than the wanton destruction and cool video footage. In the 2009 and 2010 tests, NASA was able to demonstrate that the honeycomb cushion designed for space capsules could also increase the survivability of a helicopter crash. It worked so well that they were able to simulate another crash for comparison.

Last week’s crash test of the much larger CH-46E helicopter also provided useful crash data. Unlike the 2009-10 tests, this time NASA crashed the unmodified helicopter first. Although the test already had scientific use as a basis for which to compare a future test of a composite airframe, additional experiments abounded. The Navy, Army and FAA all contributed different crash test dummies. CONAX Florida Corporation DBA Cobham Life Support tested a restraint system in the cockpit. Unlike Mythbusters, NASA now has 350 different instrumentation points to analyze, as well as high speed camera data.

Destructive testing, like NASA’s recent helicopter crash, is not only fun and entertaining, but extremely useful. New technologies, like the honeycomb cushion, can be tested and vetted for future use. The cost, however, is high. Not everyone has the money available to conduct these necessary tests. With NASA facing flat budgets for the next few years, we wonder ‘who will crash our helicopters for us in the future?’


Repurposing Spacecraft not a Novel Idea, but a Cost-Effective One

On August 15th, NASA officially issued a call for help, in the form of scientific white papers, in hopes of repurposing the crippled Kepler spacecraft. The telescope, which had led the charge in finding exoplanets, planets orbiting distant stars, has been unable to function due to issues with two of its four reaction wheels. These wheels, which, NASA explains, are used to point to distant galaxies, are vital to Kepler’s scientific mission, studying distant stars for the changes in light intensity that would signal a planet passing between Kepler and the star. Without the ability to point correctly, the spacecraft’s main mission is compromised. Rather than letting it drift in space, NASA is trying to repurpose the satellite to save money, a strategy that the space agency has used in years past.

NASA had success with repurposing two of the THEMIS spacecraft in 2010, according to an old press release. Originally intended to study the magnetosphere, the little understood magnetic field that surrounds the Earth, two THEMIS spacecraft were diverted toward the moon after finishing their original mission. Once in lunar orbit, the spacecraft began a new mission, ARTEMIS, studying the effect of solar wind on the moon’s surface. By simply sending the fueled spacecraft to another location, NASA scientists were able to get valuable new data, without spending much extra money.

“Using two repurposed satellites for the ARTEMIS mission highlights NASA’s efficient use of the nation’s space assets,” said Dick Fisher, director of the Heliophysics Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. With its budget shrinking, NASA is doing all that it can to avoid the high cost of building and launching spacecraft.

NASA is not alone in trying to save money through repurposing satellites. John Keller reported in late January that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aka DARPA, is also looking to repurpose spacecarft, by recycling components from non-operational satellites. Defunct spacecraft often have still useful antennae and sensors. Building and launching these components is costly, in terms of both manufacturing and fuel. By recycling parts already up there, DARPA can lower the cost of a new satellite.

Using new ideas and clever innovations to repurpose or recycle spacecraft is both cost effective and a strong move toward sustainability. The junkyard of decommissioned satellites can instead become a useful tool shop for those with innovative ideas.

With Sequestration Grounding Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, Civilian Jet Teams Steal the (Air) Show

After years of performing at SeaFair in Seattle, the airbox was conspicuously absent of the thundering presence of the Navy’s Blue Angels. Instead, spectators were treated to a red, white and blue spectacle by a civilian jet team, the Patriots. This has become a common sight since the Navy’s Blue Angels and the USAF’s Thunderbirds stopped performing at air shows due to sequestration budget cuts. With the military teams grounded, civilian jet teams, like the Patriots and Black Diamonds, have had the opportunity to wow crowds with their unusual planes and comparable maneuvers.

Although the Patriot’s Aero-Vodochody L-39C’s can’t match the supersonic speed of the Blue Angel’s F-18’s or the Thunderbirds F-16’s, the planes unique characteristics make for a great show. The Patriot’s website details an unusual maneuver known as the Tail Slide, where the L-39 stalls and fall back toward the earth. You won’t see that at a Blue Angels or Thunderbirds show. Additionally, the slower speed of the L-39’s makes it possible for the pilots to turn around using less space, so the planes return to the show area more quickly. The L-39’s may lack the bone-rattling power of the supersonic American fighter jets, but they still have entertaining maneuvers to offer expectant crowds.

In fact, the Patriots and other civilian jet teams can duplicate many of the maneuvers expected by Blue Angels and Thunderbirds followers. Of the seven maneuvers listed on the Thunderbirds site, the Patriots show replicates six of them with accuracy. The L-39 formation completes the diamond opener and loop in their show sequence. Both shows feature an opposing knife edge maneuver and calypso, difficult two-plane formations where the planes fly close together and inverted. There are a few moves that the civilian teams can’t copy, due to their planes’ capabilities, but the non-military teams have invented some of their own formations as well. You would never see the Blue Angels draw a heart with an arrow through it, but the Patriots do it at most shows.

Another different aspect of civilian jet teams is that they have a wide variety of aircraft available for purchase, allowing them to maintain multiple types of aircraft. Although the Blue Angels showcase F-18’s and the “Fat Albert” C-130 Hercules, the Black Diamond civilian team has three different aircraft – L-39’s, Mig-17’s and a CT-33 listed on their page. An abundance of aircraft types allows the Black Diamond team to create unique maneuvers, such as their “Make a Wish Roll,” where a Mig 17 barrel rolls around the diamond formation. Many air show buffs often attend in order to see different planes, and the Black Diamond civilian team delivers more planes per show than either military jet team.

While your eardrums may not tremble when the -L39’s enter the airspace, civilian jet teams are thrilling spectators at venues across the country. As one of few alternatives while the military jet teams are grounded, the civilian teams like the Patriots have been running a full schedule of shows this year. If the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds get off the ground anytime soon, they may find new competition for airshow performances.

Rocket Hobbyists Show Off Unique Designs in Bonneville

Although the multi-million dollar rockets roaring off the launchpad often have similar shapes and designs, you’re bound to find some unique rocket designs at the Utah Rocket Club (UROC) Hellfire 18 event at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Unbound by needs of payload capacity and insertion points, model rocket designs probe the limits of design, often adding their own signature style.

Some rockets are designed simply to have a unique look. One was modeled after a chess piece. Another resembled a supersonic plane, built entirely from aluminum. One hobbyist showed off his glistening blue carbon fiber lined body tube, christened the Mockingjay after the iconic symbol of The Hunger Games. When pressed about the use of carbon fiber, he simply replied that he thought it looked the best.

However, not everyone cares about style; one hobbyist found practical reasons to modify his design. At a prior launch, one of his rockets plunged through the front window of a car due to a parachute deployment failure. Determined to make his rockets’ landings safer, this enterprising designer made two rockets of foam and balsa wood. Using a FUNNOODLE ® foam pool noodle as the body tube and nose cone and fins made of sturdy balsa, these rockets don’t need a successful parachute deployment anymore. When they smack the concrete-hard surface of the Bonneville Salt Flats, they simply bounce, ready for another launch as soon as the motor is replaced.

The diversity of designs is astonishing compared to large-scale rocket designs, even if the success rate isn’t as high. One can only hope that the commercial launch vehicles created by the likes of SpaceX, Blue Origin and Orbital Sciences will someday have as much diversity as one crate of rockets sitting in the blistering Utah sun. Who wouldn’t want to launch into orbit on a rocket shaped like a chess piece?