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NASA and Lockheed Excited at New X-plane Development for Quiet SSTs

NASA recently awarded Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. a contract to build a quiet supersonic jet. The $247 million contract is an addition to the aerospace company’s preliminary agency contract which was awarded in 2016. The bold idea behind the new jet is to make it a platform for a supersonic airliner which will have a “quiet” sonic boom, unlike the Concorde.

The NASA Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) project will build upon prior developments at Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works facility, the project aims to have the first test flight by the end of 2021. The plane’s specifications include travelling at Mach 1.5 (approximately 990 mph) at the cruising height of 55,000 feet. This would allow flights to cross the Atlantic in roughly three hours. Current subsonic airline flights take eight hours from New York to Paris.

Aiming for the Sound of Thunder

A key element of the design for the aircraft is for the sonic boom to be within acceptable limits of only half the sound at that speed. In a written statement from NASA, the resulting sonic boom would be “so quiet it hardly will be noticed by the public, if at all.” It has been likened to the sound of “distant thunder” or “the sound of your neighbor forcefully shutting his door outside while you are inside.”

The loud noise of the sonic boom was the cause for contention regarding the Concorde flying supersonic over the continental United States. The resulting regulation was one of the reasons Boeing was forced to cancel their development of the Boeing 2707. It was supposed to be the first American SST. It had already won a government-funded project to build the SST at its Seattle, Washington facility. The 2707 was designed to have seating for 250 to 300 passengers and cruise at speeds close to Mach 3. This would have been a larger and faster SST compared to the Concorde.

In September, 2017, NASA unveiled the basic design of the QueSST. According to the launch, NASA and Lockheed have already invested £290 million or more than $415 million in research for the plane. They have been testing the mockups in wind tunnels.

Working on the “Boom”

As a plane approaches the speed of sound or Mach 1, the air in front of the plane compresses. The compression stays in front of the plane while it is flying at less than Mach 1. When the plane reaches Mach 1, the compression waves are no longer able to travel faster than the plane, and they accumulate and pile up, producing a booming sound like an explosion. The sonic boom created by supersonic flight is a double boom, with the first explosion occurring as the compression waves pile up on the leading edge of the wing, and the second wave occurs at the tail, when the pressure goes back to normal. The sonic boom is continuous while the plane is in supersonic flight. The sound of the rolling boom across the ground underneath the plane’s path is called the “boom carpet.”

The sonic boom is a result of a plane flying faster than the speed of sound. It can be as loud as 200 decibels, and rattle windows and homes miles away. The sonic boom is within the range of 0.1 to 100 hertz, the lower range of human hearing. The sound is below the range of conventional aircraft and most industrial noise. The duration also characteristically brief, being less than a second. It can be as long as a 100 milliseconds or 0.1 second for fighter planes, and around 500 milliseconds or half a second in length for the Concorde, the space shuttle or any large supersonic vehicle.

The boom is a cone of sound with the aircraft at its leading point. The higher the plane flies, the wider the boom is on the ground. However, with greater altitude, there is less overpressure on the ground. Due to the nature of sound and compression waves, there are various factors which affect how it is heard or the perception of the boom, how loud and where it is heard. The carpet boom follows the flight path of the plane on the ground. This weakens farther away from the flight path. The boom exposure area is estimated to be about 1 mile wide, for each 1,000 feet altitude of flight. Flying supersonic at 30,000 feet, the carpet boom would be 30 miles wide on the ground. The plane’s behavior also affects the boom. Diving and accelerating can focus the boom, whereas deceleration and climbing can reduce the effects of the shockwave. Weather conditions and disturbances can also distort booms.

Supersonic Transports in History

There have only been two supersonic transports. The most successful was the Concorde which was jointly developed by France and the United Kingdom. It had an average cruising speed of Mach 2.02 or about 1,334 mph, with a service ceiling of 60,000 feet. It was first flown in 1969 and entered commercial service in 1976. It had a capacity of 98 to 128 passengers and flew from New York to Paris in less than 3.5 hours. It was in service until 2003. The restrictions on supersonic flight are for commercial SSTs over land, specifically over populated areas. The Concorde was only allowed to fly at supersonic speeds over the Atlantic and the Pacific.

The only other SST to fly commercial routes was the Russian TU-144. It had a shorter commercial life flying passengers. It flew freight and passengers on the Moscow to Alma-Ata and Moscow to Khabarovsk routes. Its first regular passenger service was in November 1977, and the last was in June 1979. The TU-144 development program was cancelled in 1983. Unlike the Concorde, the supersonic overland route was allowed because the Soviet Union did not have any regulations pertaining to the sonic boom.

The QueSST is the latest incarnation in the development of a low noise supersonic transport. There have been various research including DARPA’s Quiet Supersonic Platform. The government agency also funded the Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration (SSBD) aircraft. Using a modified F-5 Freedom Fighter aircraft, the SSBD concept was tested in 21 flights over a two-year period. This extensive study of the sonic boom included 1,300 recordings of the shock wave and sonic boom. The SSBD was able to reduce the sonic boom volume by about one-third. If the developments on the SSBD were used on the Concorde, it would have been capable of supersonic flight at acceptable noise levels.

One interesting outcome of the various research into finding a low-noise sonic boom is the development of theoretical designs that seem to have no sonic booms at all. However, even without it, there would still be a shockwave if the aircraft were to generate aerodynamic lift. Earlier studies involving the North American B-70 Valkyrie showed that the sonic boom was still a problem even if it flew at a much higher altitude of 70,000 feet.

The contract between NASA and Lockheed aims to have a working prototype of the QueSST. It would be a single-pilot plane ready for flight by 2021. Testing the aircraft would help determine a design which could be used for commercial aircraft of the future.

While Lockheed is developing supersonic noise abatement designs for aircraft, NASA will also look into the human and legal side of the equation. The noise regulations which limited the overland flight of SST was the result of public clamor during the late 1960s. The regulations were based on the understanding of science at the time. NASA will be conducting tests around urban areas to determine if the stipulated regulations regarding noise levels could be amended.

There is excitement in the development of the plane. According to a Lockheed Martin spokesman, the QueSST is “NASA’s first X-plane in a generation.” Lockheed and NASA are not the only ones developing new generation SSTs. Japan Airlines and Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines are backing Boom Supersonic in the development of SST for transoceanic flights.

In a separate project, Lockheed is working with Aerion Corp. to develop the AS2 business jet class SST with a planned first flight in 2023.

Supersonic flights could very well be in people’s travel options soon.

Algae-Forestry—Sustainable Energy, Climate Change, World Hunger and More

What do reducing carbon emissions, solving world hunger, green-energy, and space travel have in common? All of these problems may be addressed by a very unassuming organism—algae. Scientists from different universities are currently conducting research regarding an unconventional use of algae combined with other substances.

Combat Climate Change

 Scientists from Duke University, Cornell University, and the University of Hawaii have banded together to see whether an unlikely mixture of algae can help create negative emissions in order to stop climate change. The bold idea of using algae to absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide started with Ian Archibald of Cinglas Ltd. They called this new system Algae Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (ABECCS). It acts as a huge carbon dioxide sink to reduce the current levels of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Algae convert the carbon dioxide in the air into carbon-rich lipids, which is not very far from bio-diesel.

“Algae may be the key to unlocking an important negative-emissions technology to combat climate change,” Charles Greene, Cornell professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences said.

The scientist explained that when algae is combined with eucalyptus, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage as well as microalgae production could produce a unique scientific synergy that could both reduce greenhouse gases and help solve world hunger.

Absorbing carbon is simply one part of the system. One of the main functions of the ABECCS facility is to generate safe and sustainable energy. Most of the world’s energy comes from the burning of carbon-based fuel sources such as fossil fuel. As the algae in the system are used to absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide, it can also be used as a fuel replacement for power plants.

In fact, according Greene, when the price of carbon increases in the future, the system can be used as a means to reduce carbon dioxide and use it for an environmentally sustainable energy source.

Food Source

 Aside from being used as a potential fuel source, the ABECCS facilities can also be used to generate food as algae are a good source of protein. For a small land foot print, it can generate the same amount of protein as soybeans. However, algae is able to do this while generating energy and reducing tons of carbon dioxide from the air at the same time.

According to Robert Henrikson, CEO of Smart Microfarms, microalgae are 20 times more productive than traditional crops. They don’t require too much water and can be grown nearly anywhere so they won’t compete for agricultural land.

Algae in Space

Since algae is a very efficient food source, it is also being tested for space travel. Scientists are trying to see whether algae can be grown on Mars as an alternative food source. German scientists have been trying to prove this since 2014 and have discovered that two types of algae can survive up to 16 months in space.

Furthermore, because algae is an efficient energy source, it can also be used as bio-fuel to power space shuttles and space stations in the future. This oft-ignored organism may actually hold the key to improving technology and various life processes in the future.

Stale or Safe? Smart Patch Detects Food Gone Bad

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed food poisoning is so common, that as many as 48 million people get sick. About 128,000 people who got sick from a foodborne illness end up in the hospital, with as many as 3,000 dying from food poisoning.

This seemingly irrelevant illness actually creates a negative impact to the lives of countless people. Researchers have found at least 250 foodborne diseases, a majority of which are caused by bacteria, parasites, and viruses. As the primary sources of sustenance, food should always be safe – so scientists at the McMaster University in Canada have created the bold idea of a nontoxic patch that helps people easily see if their food has gone bad.

Good Food Gone Bad

The group of scientists from McMaster published their study in the journal ACS Nano, elaborating on the patch’s biosensing technology. Their smart patch is a harmless see-through material that can be used in food packaging. The patch can detect a number of harmful bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella.

The patch’s technology seems simple enough – a smartphone or device could pick up the signal to alert the persons if the food in the packaging is still safe or should no longer be consumed. In the scientists’ tests, the bio patch was able to detect even very low concentrations of E. coli in meat and apple juice. This patch could protect unsuspecting victims from food poisoning.

The scientists suggest the material is a great solution for real-time pathogen monitoring. Because the material is stable for “at least half the shelf life of perishable packaged food products” (14 days), the team is hoping it could soon be a packaging standard that replaces the traditional “best before” stamps and labels on today’s available food and drinks. Although these estimated dates are usually accurate, many experience food and drinks that have gone past their actual prime days before the stamped dates.

“In the future, if you go to a store and you want to be sure the meat you’re buying is safe at any point before you use it, you’ll have a much more reliable way than the expiration date,” explained Hanie Yousefi, one of the study’s authors and a research assistant in the faculty of engineering at McMaster University.

Easily Integrate-able, Solves Many Problems

Tohid F. Didar, one of the study authors and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at McMaster, explained how the revolutionary smart patch is easy to integrate. He said the DNA molecules used to detect bacteria is easily printed onto film; as such, mass production of the patch is relatively easy.

“A food manufacturer could easily incorporate this into its production process,” said Professor Didar, affirming it is “fairly cheap and simple.” This easy integration, as well as the fact it can be a definitive indicator of food spoilage, may help the perennial global food waste problem.

In a 2016 survey by Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, National Consumers League, and Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, it was revealed that confusion about “best before” date labels contribute to household food waste.

Titled “Consumer Perception of Date Labels: National Survey,” this dives into a widespread issue showing that food waste accounts for about two-thirds of the $218 billion annual cost of growing, transporting, processing, and disposing a whopping 40% of American food supply – or the food that goes unconsumed.

Other possible uses for this groundbreaking smart patch may include medical purposes: bandages which show if wounds are infected, or even wrappers for surgical instruments to indicate if they are still sterile. Brilliant minds may think of other possible uses for the patch that could create bold impacts in  industries beyond food and medicine.

‘Will Coffee Grounds Be Fueling Buses And Cars in the Future?’ Cartoon

illustrated cartoon of coffee grounds biofuel powering up the engine of a double-decker bus
Scientists have now discovered a way to make coffee grounds a viable low-cost source of fuel! What are the repercussions of such a fact on the environment?