While airlines and manufacturers could be forgiven for worrying about where their next passengers or customers will be coming from, given the current economic environment, NASA is trying to make sure we don't become so focused on the turmoil of the present that we take our eye off the challenges of the future.
To that end, the agency's aeronautics research arm has awarded 18-month contracts to six industry teams to identify technologies needed to meet the efficiency and environmental targets it has set for aircraft entering service 25-30 years from now. NASA calls these "N+3" - aircraft three generations ahead of today's CFM56-powered 737s. You can read more about it on NASA's aeronautics website.
The studies will cover a wide range of aircraft configurations, and airframe and propulsion technologies. They include aircraft fuelled by liquid natural gas and others with multiple, distributed engines; short-takeoff and variable-geometry aircraft that make better use of runways and 10- to 30-seat aircraft than can use community airports; aircraft that cruise 10% slower than today to tap into different technologies and low-noise, low-emmissions supersonic transports that can cruise with low sonic boom.
To help visualize all these possible futures, here are illustrations of some of the concepts:
N+3 subsonic transport. (Photo: MIT)
Quiet, efficient small aircraft. (Photo: GE Aviation)
Supersonic commercial aircraft. (Photo: Boeing)
Low-boom supersonic transport . (Photo: Lockheed Martin)