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NASA Interns Compete Against The Clock To Develop X-59 Simulation

Program Allowed The Students To Do Real-World Development Work On An Actual NASA Project

Interns from three NASA centers spent their summer competing to develop a laptop flight simulator of the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology or “QueSST” aircraft. The competition came with an added challenge: it had to be completed within 10 weeks.

The spirit of the challenge was to allow the students to do real-world development work on an actual NASA project by initiating a labor intensive assignment in the shortest time possible.

The X-59 is an experimental supersonic aircraft currently under construction and will fly for the first time in 2021. Although researchers have fully developed the aircraft’s configuration, there was little validation data provided to the interns intentionally, so they would rely on developing their own simulation database for the aircraft.

“Often in school, the problems we solve have clear knowns and unknowns,” said Jonathan Richter, NASA intern from Washington University in St. Louis. “In this project, we’ve spent a lot of time sifting through data that doesn’t fit within those confines.”

Prior to the project’s inception, researchers working on the actual aircraft discussed creative ways that the excitement and importance of the X-59 could be shared with the general public but also be used as a tool to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“Our project team was excited about creating a challenging STEM activity for the summer interns,” said Dave Richwine, Low Boom Flight Demonstrator deputy project manager for technology, who helped initiate the intern competition. “This activity not only connected today’s students to our work, but the end product will be used as an X-59 flight simulator demonstration for the general public.”

The Challenge

Researchers from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center and NASA’s Ames Flight Research Center in California, and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, selected interns from a large summer internship applicant pool. Each center’s team competed against the others to create their own flight simulators from scratch.

Under the tutelage of mentors that lead the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator project, teams were given limited data sets derived from the experimental aircraft to input into flight simulation software to create the basic flight model.

Interns also received guidance from mentors in the development of simulation software and how to verify and validate the accuracy of the aircraft models. However, mentors were not allowed to acquire data on behalf of their team, point to resources for data allocation, or assist with modeling and validation.

“It’s been challenging not to step in with solutions to my team’s problems, “said Corey Diebler, X-59 flight dynamics and simulation lead. “Perhaps it’s a little tough love, but you have to strike a balance.”

From there, interns were mostly on their own.

Teams leveraged their skill sets into real problem solving scenarios that ultimately determined how the aircraft behaved in flight simulation. To start with a stable configuration, some center teams imported data files from existing aircraft and massaged the data to develop their own flight profile that would more closely match the X-59.

“Everything changed as we went, “said Rob Kohring, Langley intern from University of Michigan. “We focused on certain things one day and then realized that we should focus more on another matter. Our priorities evolved as we went through the project.”

Another part of the challenge was to ensure the aircraft looks realistic. The X-59 is extremely unique in its design, requiring teams to graphically depict it as cleanly and accurately as possible. This meant not just the outer mold line of the aircraft but implementing retractable landing gear, paint and graphics, a cockpit complete with avionics, electronics, and a pilot.

“One of the goals of the project was to demonstrate engineering system design trade-offs,” said Kurt Long, X-59 flight testing and life support systems engineer, who helped spearhead the internship competition.

Judgement Day

The final models of each team’s flight simulator were judged in a “fly-off” by actual X-59 test pilots. The pilots evaluated all three models by flying them through representative mission tasks along with initiating standard flight test maneuvers. These maneuvers are what a test pilot would use in evaluating an experimental aircraft on a professional flight simulator.

The performance criteria included, but was not limited to: time to climb, speed and acceleration versus throttle inputs, the aircraft’s overall flight behavior within the envelope influenced by its weight and center of gravity, and how effective trim adjustments are in adjusting flight attitude. Take-off and landing performance were also evaluated.

At the end of judgement day, the Ames internship team took the top spot.

“We think all three teams did a superb job in representing the first true laptop flight models of the X-59, and we are also proud to share this summer’s winner with the public,” Long said with satisfaction.

Click here to fly the laptop flight simulations.

(Images provided with NASA news release. Top: NASA interns [L-R] Yana Charoenboonvivat, Yeray Pabon Gonzalez and Matt Williamson from NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. Bottom: NASA interns [L-R] Daniel Prohaska, Thomas Ozoroski, and Rob Kohring at Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA)



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