NASA announced today that it is working with Boeing on a new type of fuel-efficient single-aisle aircraft for commercial use, with the goal of reducing fuel emissions and reducing the climate impact of flying.
“Most of you all think of NASA as a space agency and an aviation agency. It’s also a climate agency,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at a news conference. NASA monitors the Earth from space – using tools such as satellites to monitor global weather conditions and water systems – and develops technologies to reduce carbon emissions.
“Most of you all think of NASA as a space agency and an aviation agency. It is also a climate bureau.”
“When you fly in any plane, you’re surrounded by NASA technology,” Nelson said. Advances in aircraft design such as winglets, the small vertical extensions of wings, were made by NASA in the 1970s and are now ubiquitous in passenger aircraft.
The agency hopes its Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project can provide a similar kind of innovation in the form of a new wing structure called a transonic lattice wing. It will work with Boeing to design and build the new aircraft, which should be more fuel efficient and can use up to 30 percent less fuel than current aircraft designs.
The concept is an aircraft with both more efficient engines and wings that sit high on the aircraft body and are longer and less wide, supported by a brace that extends from the underside of the body. This reduces drag, while both the wing and the brace provide lift.
A new wing structure called a transonic truss-braced wing
“The aerodynamics of this kind of configuration has actually been known for a long time,” said Bob Pearce, associate administrator of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. “If you increase the aspect ratio of a wing, of course you decrease the induced drag of that aircraft – the drag due to lift. We know that if we do this you get better aerodynamics, less drag and less fuel consumption.”
The challenge in this case is to create the structure needed for this wing shape without making the aircraft too heavy. Boeing unveiled the first version of this concept in 2019, but it will take several years to integrate other technologies and move from demonstration to practical use.
The idea is that, unlike NASA’s silent supersonic X-59 QueSST, which is also currently under development but will never carry passengers, it won’t just be an experimental aircraft. Instead, NASA wants to develop technology that can be put to commercial use. “This project aims to revolutionize the kind of aircraft that the public uses most when they take to the skies,” Nelson said.
NASA aims to fly the first prototype in 2028 and use it commercially in the 2030s.