Saturday, March 12, 2011

Week in review (3/6 to 3/12)

The story didn't have direct ties to the Gulf Coast aerospace corridor, not yet at least, but it was interesting in light of Mobile, Ala.'s recent loss of the Air Force aerial refueling tanker project. I'm talking about the $33 million DARPA KQ-X project, designed to show the ability of one unmanned aircraft to refuel another.

In late January, a Scaled Composites-built Proteus aircraft owned by Northrop Grumman and a Northrop Grumman-built Global Hawk owned by NASA flew within 40 feet of one another at 45,000 feet. No fuel was exchanged, but that wasn’t the point.

The flight was designed to check wake turbulence between the two aircraft, engine performance and flight control responsiveness in the stratosphere. The program could eventually lead to unmanned aircraft refueling other unmanned aircraft, allowing them to stay aloft as much as a week. Two Global Hawks are expected to try out autonomous aerial refueling in the spring of 2012.

The test was jointly conducted by Northrop Grumman, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency and NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, a follow-on to a 2006 DARPA Autonomous Aerial Refueling Demonstration that used an F-18 fighter as a surrogate unmanned aircraft to autonomously refuel through a probe and drogue from a 707 tanker.

While the program is designed for UAV to UAV refueling, it's not much of a stretch to think this testing could also determine if an unmanned aircraft can refuel a manned vehicle.

"Demonstrating close formation flight of two high altitude aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, is a notable accomplishment," said Geoffrey Sommer, KQ-X program manager at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. "When you add autonomous flight of both aircraft into the mix, as we will do later in the KQ-X program, you gain a capability that has mission applications far beyond just aerial refueling."

You can bet that Boeing, which won the contract to build manned tankers to replace the aging fleet of KC-135s, will be keeping tabs on the progress of KQ-X. If these tests prove to be successful, it's not unreasonable to think unmanned aerial tankers may go into production even before all the Boeing KC-46As are built. Even if UAV tankers are used only to refuel other UAVs, it's obvious with the increasing use of UAVs that this is a growth field.

That could bode well for the Gulf Coast region. Global Hawk fuselages are already being built in Moss Point, Miss., at the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center, and it has room to grow. Could it one day do work on Global Hawk unmanned tankers? Just a thought.

- Speaking of Moss Point, the first Global Hawk fuselage that will be used for a Navy BAMS aircraft has been finished and will be shipped to Northrop Grumman's Palmdale, Calif., facility for finishing work. The fuselage was finished a week ahead of schedule. The Navy plans to have more than 60 Broad Area Maritime Surveillance aircraft providing watch for the fleet.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver was in South Mississippi during the week to reinforce the importance of NASA's Stennis Space Center, Miss., and to meet with employees. She said Stennis Space Center is a unique facility that should be fully utilized. She held up Stennis, where up to 30 percent of the costs are borne by other government agencies and companies, as an example of how capabilities can be shared.

- Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne completed a series of Hardware Acceptance Reviews on the first RS-68A production rocket engine, validating the hydrogen-fueled engine is ready to power a heavy-lift vehicle into space. Engine 30003, the first of three RS-68A production engines to undergo a review, has been shipped to Decatur, Ala., for integration onto a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle. RS-68A production engines 30004 and 30005 will undergo hardware reviews in March and April 2011 after completion of hot-fire testing at Stennis Space Center, Miss.

- The failure to devise a spaceflight plan for NASA after the shuttle fleet is retired raises the specter of more workforce cuts in the U.S. launch industry, according to the head of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. Jim Maser estimates there are "four to eight months" to choose a way forward. After that, he expects layoffs at PWR as he begins to roll up unfunded rocket engine programs like the J-2X cryogenic upper-stage engine. The first full-up J-2X is set to begin testing at Stennis Space Center, Miss., next month.

Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans has been approved to schedule charter flights to and from Cuba. In addition to New Orleans, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said the charter flights can now be scheduled as well from airports in  Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Dallas/Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Tampa, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Previously flights were only allowed from Los Angeles, Miami and New York.

- A Navy plan to extend four runways at outlying fields in Baldwin County, Ala., is moving forward. Naval Air Station Whiting Field, in Milton, Fla., said the project's environmental assessment is finished. The 1,000-foot runway extensions would cross land now occupied by 23 homes and 203 acres of other people's property in Foley and Summerdale. After a review by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, the Navy will begin talking to residents about land acquisition. The Navy is replacing T-34C training aircraft with the T-6A, which requires longer runways.

- Northrop Grumman and the Air National Guard's 190th Air Refueling Wing finished the first round of flight testing with the company's Guardian anti-missile system on a Boeing KC-135. The laser-based Guardian System, contained almost entirely in a single pod on the underside of the fuselage, is designed to detect launched missiles and then disrupt their guidance signals using a non-visible laser. The Air Force is scheduled to continue an Operational Utility Evaluation through the second quarter, with additional flights and system tests at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

The Marine Corps' top general said he wants and early end to the two-year probation imposed on the Marine version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Gen. James Amos told the Senate Armed Services Committee during the week that the Marines need the short-takeoff version to carry out the Marine mission. The Marine variant was put on probation because of technical issues. But Amos said he's encouraged by its progress. Meanwhile, the Navy version of the F-35 broke the sound barrier during the week. The carrier variant is the last of the three variants to break the sound barrier. The F-35 training center will be at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.