737 MAX flying again, progress in aircraft flight testing and much activity on Mars
By Christopher D. Karlgaard, Soumyo Dutta and Christopher Cotting|December 2021
The Atmospheric Flight Mechanics Technical Committee addresses the aerodynamic performance, trajectories and attitude dynamics of aircraft, spacecraft, boosters and entry vehicles.
Early in the year, Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft returned to commercial service worldwide after they were recertified for flight following extensive flight testing of improvements made to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. The 737 MAX 10 variant made its first flight in June, starting its flight test and certification program.
In July, NASA’s X-57 Maxwell all-electric aircraft underwent high-voltage testing at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. This test demonstrated that the vehicle systems, including its propulsion system, could operate as designed at full power. The test paves the way for future flight testing of the experimental aircraft.
The U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School redesignated the NF-16D Variable In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft the X-62A VISTA. The Air Force Test Pilot School is upgrading the X-62A with a new VISTA Simulation System as well as a new System for Autonomous Control of the Simulation to include a Lockheed Martin Legion Sensor Pod. The upgrade also adds multiple data links for command and control as well as telemetry. The upgrades, sponsored by the Skyborg program, will enable future research projects to include Air Force autonomous vehicle testing. The X-62A can serve as a flying simulator to test prototype crewed and uncrewed aircraft and their control systems in a safe, sandboxed environment. The X-62A is poised to provide a flexible test bed to rapidly mature unproven systems for the next generation of Air Force aircraft.
The Air Force’s AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, a hypersonic rocket-powered boost-glide guided missile, underwent a series of flight tests this year. In April and July, the Air Force attempted two tests of the missile’s booster system over the Point Mugu Sea Range in California. In both cases, a B-52H Stratofortress from Edwards Air Force Base carried the AGM-183A test vehicle to the test range. During the first flight test, the test vehicle did not complete its launch sequence and thus was not released by the B-52H; the aircraft returned to Edwards. The second flight test attempt demonstrated safe release from the B-52H, but the solid rocket booster motor failed to ignite. The root cause of the failure was still under investigation as of mid-October. Although the booster flight tests were unsuccessful, a separate avionics test conducted in May during a B-52 flight test demonstrated the ability for the weapons systems to receive target data and conduct a simulated launch.
Spacecraft of three space organizations — United Arab Emirates Space Agency, NASA and the China National Space Administration — arrived at Mars this year after being launched in 2020. UAE’s Hope orbiter reached the red planet first on Feb. 9, becoming the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. The Chinese orbiter Tianwen-1 entered Martian orbit on Feb. 10. Finally, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars on Feb. 18, becoming the ninth NASA mission to land on Mars. Perseverance also landed with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, a 2-kilogram robotic helicopter that in April flew the first powered flight on another planet. China’s Zhurong rover joined Perseverance on the planetary surface on May 14, making China the second country to land and operate a spacecraft from the Martian surface.