When you look out the window of an airliner and see the flaps moving up and down, you’re really watching the wing change shape. The flaps change the curvature of the top of the wing, changing the amount of lift generated. But NASA is planning to test out a new plane that will bend its wings in a completely different way for a smoother, and greener, flight.

The innovative wings won’t just have flaps to change the curvature, they’ll also have an entire section of the wing that can fold up or down, thanks to a sophisticated hinge. NASA engineers have developed a compact, lightweight solid-state actuator that can articulate the wingtips during flight

NASA will be using a special drone to test out these bendable wings next spring. The Prototype-Technology Evaluation and Research Aircraft, or P-TERA, is a modular UAV designed for testing out new aeronautical designs and technology. NASA can stick on the new articulating wings and test out the stability of the design in real flight conditions, not just in a wind tunnel.

Area-I's Prototype-Technology Evaluation and Research Aircraft (PTERA) that NASA plans to fly next spring

Engineers want to bend wings for a reason: stability. Weather and speed can create highly variable conditions, and wings aren’t necessarily built to handle all of them. Moving the ends of a wing up or down can create more yaw stability, especially when flying at supersonic speeds.

Hinged wings can also be useful on the ground when planes have huge wingspans or space is tight, like on an aircraft carrier. An added benefit will be fuel savings. With lightweight actuators and less drag, aircraft with articulated wings will be more efficient.

yaw gif
Yaw is the rotation of a plane around a vertical axis.

NASA’s prototype isn’t the first aircraft to have hinged wings purely for stability. That honor goes to the XB-70 Valkyrie, an experimental supersonic bomber that NASA developed with the US Air Force in the early 1960s. The wingtips were completely horizontal during takeoff and landing, and while the plane was flying at speeds under the sound barrier. At supersonic speeds, the wingtips were moved downward for stability and to reduce drag from the wingtips interacting with the shockwave caused by the plane’s air intake inlets.

The XB-70 Valkyrie, an experimental aircraft from the 1960s, had articulated wingtips
The XB-70 Valkyrie, an experimental aircraft from the 1960s, had articulated wingtips

NASA might have also taken inspiration for a flying machine from much further back than the ‘60s for its P-TERA plane. Perhaps it looked to the pterosaurs, the first vertebrates to fly, also with wings that would bend slightly.

The Pteranodon lived during the Cretaceous period, the 79-million year period that began 145 million years ago.
The Pteranodon lived during the Cretaceous period, the 79-million year period that began 145 million years ago.

Photos via NASA (1, 2, 3, 4), S.W. Williston's reconstruction of Ornithostoma ingens, a synonym of P. longiceps, Area-I Inc.


Winter is coming to Titan’s southern hemisphere, but don’t expect any direwolves or white walkers. Instead, you can be on the lookout for some extraordinary chemistry to permeate the planet’s atmosphere and surface, according researchers at the 48th annual Division of Planetary Science meeting in Pasadena, California. This is critical when you remember that Saturn’s largest moon is among the most exciting places to look for extraterrestrial life.

With its clouded atmosphere and lakes of liquid hydrocarbons, Titan is the only other place we know of in the solar system (aside from the Earth) with an active weather cycle that continuously changes the landscape below. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been exploring the Saturnian system since 2004, and is on its way to completing 127 flybys of Titan that have accumulated a trove of data related to the moon’s potential to sustain life.

“Cassini’s long mission and frequent visits to Titan have allowed us to observe the pattern of seasonal changes on Titan, in exquisite detail, for the first time,” Athena Coustenis of the Observatoire de Paris explained during the meeting.

Artist's illustration of Titan

Winter is tightening its grip on Titan’s southern hemisphere while the northern hemisphere is nearing summer solstice. The major shift in temperature has had a dramatic effect on the moon’s atmosphere. Researchers have observed temperatures dropping as much as 40 degrees in just four years, compared to the gradual warming — 6 degrees in six years — seen in the north.

The seasonal shift has spawned a massive polar vortex that has taken root in the upper atmosphere just above the south pole. As that part of the moon transitions into winter’s shadow, ultraviolet light from the sun gets blocked out, causing the amount of trace gases — such as methyl acetylene and benzene which have only been seen at northern latitudes — to rapidly build up inside the storm.

Cassini has worked to provide a big picture view of Titan’s seasons, which will help scientists understand what role the seasons play in habitability by understanding the photochemical processes taking place. “We’ve had the chance to witness the onset of winter from the beginning and are approaching the peak time for these gas-production processes in the southern hemisphere,” Coustenis explained. “We are now looking for new molecules in the atmosphere above Titan’s south polar region that were predicted by our computer models. Making these detections will help us understand the photochemistry going on.”

Of course, there is only so much we can glean from a flyby probe. Scientists around the world are making the case for NASA and others to greenlight a mission that would directly investigate Titan’s surface and liquid methane oceans for signs of life. Understanding the changing dynamics of the moon’s seasons are an important way to unravel the types of geological and chemical processes that could encourage or hinder the evolution of life on what is a very cold but very vibrant world.

Photos via NASA, NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

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