Airplane vortex

Aerodynamics, the study of gases in motion

Aerodynamics is the way objects move through air. The rules of aerodynamics explain how an airplane is able to fly. Anything that moves through air is affected by aerodynamics, from a rocket blasting off, to a kite flying. Since they are surrounded by air, even cars are affected by aerodynamics.

Racecar aerodynamics – The aerospace industry has always had a direct link to the automotive industry, and NASA has, over the years, provided a great deal of its technology to its ground-based cousin, whether it was in the form of grooved pavement to reduce the risk of hydroplaning vehicles, or helping to design crash test dummies with embedded sensors. NASA has also contributed to automobile industry technological advances such as a software program that measures tire safety and fuel cell research that is revolutionizing the next generation of hybrid vehicles.

Wake vortex study
Wake Vortex Study – The air flow from the wing of this agricultural plane (image at right) is made visible by a technique that uses colored smoke rising from the ground. The swirl at the wingtip traces the aircraft’s wake vortex, which exerts a powerful influence on the flow field behind the plane. Because of wake vortex, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires aircraft to maintain set distances behind each other when they land.

A joint NASA-FAA program aimed at boosting airport capacity, however, is aimed at determining conditions under which planes may fly closer together. NASA researchers are studying wake vortex with a variety of tools, from supercomputers, to wind tunnels, to actual flight tests in research aircraft. Their goal is to fully understand the phenomenon, then use that knowledge to create an automated system that could predict changing wake vortex conditions at airports. Pilots already know, for example, that they have to worry less about wake vortex in rough weather because windy conditions cause them to dissipate more rapidly.

  • Ask – One way to increase capacity at airports is to have aircraft land and take-off closer together. What are the safety hazards with reduce the time between airplanes landing? What are the factors that can affect safe operation?
  • Imagine – Using some new technologies, researchers can actually see the vortices created by the airplanes they are studying. How far does the effect of the vortex extend? How does the strength change as the vortex mores away from the aircraft?
  • Plan, Create – Seeing the exact nature of the vortices allows the researchers to understand the exact nature of the separation needed for safe operation. Exactly how much separation is necessary for different aircraft in various wind conditions? NASA and the FAA are coming up with revised operating instructions for pilots and Air Traffic Controllers to increase the capacity – the number of take-offs and landing that can be handled safely.
  • Improve – This work will continue. As researchers learn more, they will be able to adjust the guidelines and further increase capacity without having to build more airports.

That’s engineering

  • Static stability – the capability of an object to return to its starting point after being moved from that point by some external force.

Engineering ideas

  • aerodynamics, lift, drag, gravity, thrust, air resistance, vortex, turbulence, visualization, color-enhance

Do it
Here are some challenges for you to work on…

  • NASA Rockets to Racecars (interactive) – learn about the research at NASA that contributed to the future of NASCAR and the automobile industry as a whole.
  • design a basic model racecar and test drive it. Refine your design using aerodynamics to enhance performance and compare the results.

News, updates

  • Without windows (video 1:35), the airplane’s outer shell would not need to be as thick. That means it could be redesigned using thinner, lighter materials. A lighter plane wouldn’t need as much energy and fuel to get off the ground and fly. This would save money and help reduce pollution.

Instead of windows, the inside of the plane would have a sort of digital wallpaper – like having a TV all around you! You could see what’s outside, or watch a movie.

Learn more…