Nasa lançará sonda para procurar planetas habitáveis


A missão do telescópio Kepler deve durar três anos e meio

A Nasa, agência espacial americana, deve lançar ao espaço nesta sexta-feira a sonda Kepler, que vai procurar planetas fora do Sistema Solar que sejam semelhantes à Terra e possam sustentar a vida.

O lançamento do foguete Delta 2, que transporta a sonda, está previsto para às 22h48, de Cabo Canaveral, na Flórida (hora local, 0h48 de sábado em Brasília).

Em uma missão que deverá durar três anos e meio, a Kepler vai medir continuamente a variações na luminosidade de mais de 100 mil estrelas, para detectar quando surge uma “sombra” por vezes quase imperceptível, que pode indicar a passagem de um planeta em órbita.

Os astrônomos chamam esta passagem de “trânsito”, e ela ajuda a determinar o tamanho e a órbita de eventuais planetas em volta dessas estrelas.

‘Júpiter quente’

Desde a década de 80, já foram descobertos cerca de 300 planetas que orbitam outras estrelas, mas os cientistas acreditam que a maioria é muito maior do que a Terra e que nenhum é habitável.

Isso porque os chamados “Júpiteres quentes” estariam próximos demais de seus sóis.

A distância de um planeta de sua estrela é importante porque ela pode fazer com que ele seja quente ou frio demais, impossibilitando a existência de água – elemento fundamental à vida.

“A descoberta de que a maioria das estrelas tem ‘Terras’ implica que as condições que sustentam o desenvolvimento da vida podem ser comuns por toda a galáxia”, disse William Borucki, cientista-chefe da missão Kepler, no Centro de Pesquisa Ames, da Nasa, na Califórnia. “A descoberta de poucas ou nenhuma ‘Terra’ indica que nós podemos estar sozinhos (na galáxia).”

A missão de Kepler deve ser concentrada nas áreas das constelações de Cisne e Lira, onde há uma alta concentração de estrelas.

A Nasa ressalta que a missão não é específica para buscar vida já existente nos planetas encontrados, mas seu potencial para vida. Para isso, será necessário esperar por futuras missões que possam analisar com mais cuidado as atmosferas de mundos distantes.

O projeto da sonda Kepler está orçado em US$ 600 milhões. O nome da sonda foi uma homenagem ao astrônomo alemão Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), que estudou o movimento dos planetas.


Crash prompts Sikorsky to issue S-76 caution

By John Croft

Sikorsky has alerted operators that certificated aftermarket cast acrylic windscreens built by Bell Helicopter affiliate Aeronautical Accessories are less tolerant to impact damage than the heavier original equipment glass and stretched acrylic windscreens built by Sikorsky.

The action is a result of a 4 January accident in which a Petroleum Helicopters S-76C++ crashed en route to an oil platform in Louisiana. Both pilots and six of the seven passengers on board were killed after the 14-seat helicopter descended into a swamp after a loud noise was heard in the cockpit and the torque to both engines subsequently dropped to zero.

According to the flight data recorder, the twin-engined helicopter was cruising at 138kt (255km/h) and about 700ft (215m) altitude at the time of the loud noise picked up on the cockpit voice recorder.

Sikorsky S-76
© Sikorsky

Bird specialists and US National Transportation Safety Board investigators later found remnants of a “hawk variety” on the pilot-side windscreen and other parts of the helicopter, leading to speculation that the birdstrike may have caused the windscreen to shatter or implode, incapacitating one or both pilots and causing, directly or indirectly, the engine power reduction.

As a result of the findings, Sikorsky on 17 February issued an “all operators” letter revealing that the cast acrylic windscreens, available to operators under a supplemental type certificate held by Aeronautical Accessories, provide the “equivalent” level of impact tolerance as Sikorsky-provided glass and STC stretched acrylic windscreens only at speeds below 109kt.

The NTSB says Petroleum, per normal procedure, had removed the original laminated glass windscreens after the helicopter was purchased two years ago to convert the aircraft to “operational mission status”, which includes the lighter cast acrylic replacement.

The speed threshold is not a limit to helicopter operations by law because there was no US Federal Aviation Administration requirement for bird strike resistance when the helicopter was certificated, says Sikorksy.

Given its need to certificate helicopters for North Sea operators, however, Sikorsky had designed and tested the glass and stretched acrylic windscreens to handle collisions with 1kg (2.2lb) birds at the helicopter’s top speed of 155kt according to more stringent UK civil airworthiness standards.


Flight test phase approaches for 747-8’s GEnx-2B engine

By Stephen Trimble

Only a year ago, on 29 February 2008, General Electric successfully ran the first engine to test that launched the certification phase of the GEnx-2B programme. The original goal was to complete certification for the bleed-air turbofan, rated at 67,000lb thrust (300kN), later this year, and for it to then enter flight tests with the Boeing 747-8.

But GE’s timetable was overtaken by events at Boeing. A 57-day strike by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers ate up two months of schedule. Then, a combination of unexpected engineering challenges and a shortfall of engineering resources wreaked havoc. Now, the 747-8 Freighter’s first flight is expected in late 2009.

In early March, GE was only finishing preparations on the ex-Pan American Airways 747-100 flying testbed for flight tests. A GEnx-2B, the fourth engine produced for the test programme, will be installed on the left wing.

General Electric
© General Electric

Schedule lapses may put a dent in the programme’s finances, but they offer the engineering staffs throughout the supply chain the luxury of unexpected time. So it is with the GEnx programme.

The first version – the GEnx-1B, one of two engine types powering the 787 – only completed testing aboard the same flying testbed on 7 November, or nearly two years after the flying tests began. Boeing’s 787-8 is running at least 18 months behind schedule, but first flight is now expected in the second quarter.

FLIGHT TESTS

The GEnx-1B completed a three-phase series of 52 flight tests consuming roughly 250 flight hours on 7 November. GE says it is working to develop a product improvement package to bolster the sustainability and reliability for the GEnx-1B. Increasing thrust is not one of the reasons driving the improvements, GE says. The package will enter flight tests on the 747-100 flying testbed in a “year or two”.

For GE’s flying testbed staff in Victorville, California, completing the baseline GEnx-1B flight tests only marks the midpoint of a three-year test programme for the full GEnx family.

The GEnx-2B is now being prepared to enter a flight-test phase of similar length. On the first week of April, GE completed a series of final power calibrations on Engine 4, finishing the ground-test phase and allowing the flight-test period to begin.

Around 14 February, GE was preparing to ship the engine by truck from Peebles, Ohio, to Victorville – normally a four- or five-day road trip.

GE’s flight-test organisation in Victorville – based on the site of the former George AFB – then began the process of installing Engine 4 on the company’s 747-100 flying testbed, with the goal of achieving first flight by “mid-Marchish”, says Al Krejmas, head of flight testing.

Not surprisingly, the installation process for the GEnx-2B on the 747-100 is greatly simplified compared with its predecessor – the bleedless GEnx-1B. The GE team went to extraordinary lengths to adapt the 747-100 to play its assigned role in the GEnx programme, especially for the novel features of the GEnx-1B system.

General Electric
© General Electric

For example, the 787’s unique electrical system alone required a two-year design and build process to install the GEnx-1B on the 747-100, Krejmas says. It was necessary to dramatically expand the 747-100’s on-board power supply. GE increased the capacity of the flying testbed’s electrical load bank to handle 640kW of power.

“We built up the size of the feeder runs all the way through the wing and through the fuselage and the transfer for the loadbank itself,” Krejmas says.

With the 787 engine architecture calling for electrical ground-start, the GE team also had to modify the aircraft with a temporary breadboard circuit system. “It’s an electric start engine instead of bleed, so you’ve got to power-cool the engine to start and once the engine gets to idle it flops over and then you can extract power from it,” Krejmas says. “So it’s a fairly significant modification. I mean that was a two-year thrill.”

In addition to the electrical modifications, the 747-100 crew had to design a temporary hydraulic load bank for the GEnx-1B tests as the 787 systems run on 345bar (5,000lb/in2) versus 207bar for other systems, including the 747-100. “That was a fairly significant modification, but it wasn’t as complicated as the electrical side,” he says. “I don’t want to understate it. It took a little bit of thought but we came up with an elegant solution even though the rest of the ship was 3,000lb/in2.”

The installation process for the GEnx-2B is expected to be far simpler. For one thing, it carries the same bleed-air plumbing found on previous-generation engines. The 747-8’s systems also require substantially less power from each engine, a difference that also greatly reduces the modifications required to the 747-100 testbed.

“It’s not as technically challenging as the -1b was,” Krejmas says, “and it’s very much in our experience base. It’s very similar to flying a GE90 or a CFM56 – or a CF6 for that matter.”

The GEnx-2B includes features that are a generation ahead of even the GE90. The 747-8 engine shares the same 10-stage compressor, single-annular combustor and two-stage high-pressure turbine – the three elements of the engine core – with the GEnx-1B. Notably, the fan diameter for the GEnx-2B is narrowed from 2.81m (111in) to 2.66m, allowing one fewer stage in the booster and low-pressure turbine. Both GEnx engines also share 80% of all line replaceable units and 90% of the same production tooling.

The 747-8’s four-engine system requires a full power rating of 70,950lb thrust for each propulsion unit, compared with 84,000lb for the 787.

GE’s experience in previous flight-test programmes with the GE90 and GEnx-1B will certainly be of great value for the 747-8 programme. But the inherent differences that come with any new engine, even within the same family, requires Krejmas’s team to design a very different flight-test programme.

“We approach it like a new engine because it’s a different thrust, different diameter fan, but it still functions the same,” Krejmas says.

ADJUSTMENT

A particular difference in this case is the adjustment for the GEnx-2B’s N1 rate, which measures the speed of the all-new low compressor system. As the GEnx-2B features a smaller-diameter fan than the 787’s powerplant, the shorter fan blades must spin faster, which requires greater acceleration speeds.

“You need to develop the [acceleration] rates for burst chops and operability as its own unique engine because it is,” he adds. “Its [acceleration] rates will be a little different, faster or slower.”

More differences between the 787 and 747-8 engines must be accounted for within the full-authority digital engine control system. The -2B’s smaller diameter and condensed booster and low-pressure turbine stages will require changes to the FADEC characteristics.

“The way the engine is controlled is the same, but the scheduling of rates and bleed valves is different because the engine is a little bit different,” Krejmas says. “It will have to reflect that or accommodate that.”

GE has scheduled in about 200-250 flight hours to complete GEnx-2B certification testing. The flight time is also scheduled to consume about 30-35 flights, but that is likely to expand to around 40 as GE works out “sticking points” in the software, Krejmas says.

The total flight-test period extends for seven months. That, says Krejmas, includes several weeks of downtime, as the engine undergoes scheduled maintenance intervals and fixes for software glitches found during flight tests are developed and installed.

The test campaign includes high-altitude tests in Colorado, low-altitude runs in Arizona, icing tests in the Pacific Northwest and a battery of other evaluation points over Edwards AFB, which is adjacent to the 747-100 testbed’s base in Victorville.

“It’s not solid flying from the time we start all the way to October,” Krejmas says. “But the engine will be installed with a couple of down periods while we are waiting for software roll and some basic airplane maintenance to be carried out.”


Fokker 50 fix aims to stop in-flight idled-throttle accidents

By David Kaminski-Morrow

Operators of Fokker 50 turboprops are being instructed to modify the engine controls to help reduce the likelihood that pilots will inadvertently move the throttle levers to a dangerously low setting while in flight.

Retardation of the levers below “flight-idle” – to a position normally used only to taxi on the ground – has contributed to two fatal Fokker 50 approach accidents over the past seven years: the loss of a Luxair turboprop in 2002 and a Kish Air aircraft in 2004.

In a new airworthiness directive, the European Aviation Safety Agency says: “It has become clear that, in general, flightcrews attempt to make power-lever selections below ‘flight-idle’ more frequently than anticipated.”

While it concedes that human factors are “primarily” responsible for such occurrences, EASA says that it considers corrective action through the directive to be “justified”.

Its instruction to operators is based on a Fokker Services modification, covering installation of an automatic flight-idle stop control and associated changes for additional monitoring and crew alerting.

EASA says the directive aims to improve reliability of the flight-idle stop system and make it “less sensitive” to inadvertent low-power selections. It says operators should complete the installation and modifications within two years.


Israel stands firm on demand for domestic JSF content

By Arie Egozi

Israel is maintaining a firm stance on its demand that its future fleet of air force Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters should be equipped with “as many as possible” Israeli-made systems.

The US government has so far turned down Tel Aviv’s requests to put locally produced systems on the stealthy JSF, but the Israeli air force is insistent that its next-generation aircraft should have nationally sourced electronic warfare equipment.

“We know that the [F-35] aircraft will be sold to other countries in the region, and we need to keep our edge, as in the past with other US-made aircraft,” says a source related to the issue.

© Lockheed Martin

Israel’s air force recently received its last of 102 Lockheed F-16I strike aircraft, which feature domestic EW systems, and some sources say this will allow the service to delay an order for the F-35 until the company’s annual production rate will allow a lower unit price than a current value of over $100 million.

The Israeli defence ministry issued a formal letter of request for the JSF in May last year, outlining a planned initial purchase of 25 US Air Force-configuration conventional take-off and landing F-35As and options for another 50.


Eclipse owners aim for rescue act

By Kate Sarsfield

If Eclipse Aviation is to turn into a phoenix, the 260 owners of the 259 delivered five-seat twinjets will be the ones breathing new life into an otherwise dead bird.

That reality has set off a fierce marketing campaign for owner support from at least two entities that are likely to seek to purchases the assets of the Albuquerque-based airframer in the weeks to come.

A Delaware court was expected to convert Eclipse’s Chapter 11 standing to a Chapter 7 liquidation status on 4 March, a transition neither Eclipse nor its secured creditors had disputed.

Sources close to the proceedings say a court-appointed trustee spearheading the creditors’ interests will seek to sell the company as a whole, rather than in pieces, within 30-60 days of the Chapter 7 declaration.

Eclipse 500
© Eclipse

Angling to buy the complete package is an owners’ group that would run the company as a co-operative and at least one company that would attempt to turn a profit for investors, both of which would need financial buy-in from the 260 owners. The 260th aircraft is complete but remains in limbo due to the ongoing court proceedings.

GETTING ORGANISED

The owners’ group is an extension of an earlier ah hoc group of 200 Eclipse owners and deposit holders that had organised in part to ensure continued support and upgrades for their aircraft in Chapter 11 reorganisation process. The group is now attempting to gain the support and financial commitment from all owners, some of whom have “deep pockets”. The group is formulating a plan to maintain the existing fleet as well as to eventually restart production.

In a 26 February letter to owners, the ad hoc group organisers cautioned that “a number of outside entities” were viewing the owners as “an income stream that they can fully exploit like a monopoly”. The letter goes on to say that one potential bidder planned to charge owners a $300,000 surcharge for any modification, plus “marked up cost of parts and labour”. Another would charge owners a yearly fee of $90,000 “just to access service”, according to the letter.

Concerns about the legality of continuing to fly the very light jets during the uncertain period led the US Federal Aviation Administration to issue a special airworthiness information bulletin, confirming in part that the aircraft can continue flying if “in an airworthy condition” and that the FAA, “contrary to media reports”, had no plans to ground the fleet. In addition, the agency confirmed that if Eclipse is dissolved with no new owner, the FAA will become the “custodian” of the aircraft’s type certificate. “This allows for continued support of in-service aircraft,” the bulletin reads.

GROWING OPTIMISM

One owner told Flight International that optimism is growing given the FAA support and the fact that upgrades and parts, some at significant discounts compared with OEM prices, continue to be available despite the fact that the four Eclipse factory-authorised service centres are closed.

Potential-for-profit bidder Phil Friedman, who on 26 February formed a New Eclipse Acquisition to bid for Eclipse assets, plans to open enough service centres to enable owners can reach one within 1h flying time. Friedman has been meeting owners and investors to gain support for his plan, which calls for “stabilising” the existing fleet in the first two years, bringing all aircraft to the current type certificate level in terms of performance modifications and avionics.

eclipse 400

By 2011, Friedman would begin producing about 100 aircraft a year at the factory, priced at $2.4 million each. Originally priced at less than $1 million, the Eclipse 500 most recently sold for $2.15 million before the company declared bankruptcy in November. Critical to his plan is keeping a key group of 20-50 Eclipse engineers on the payroll to provide continuity for the new company, a task he is attempting to have the secured lenders fund.

BATTLE AHEAD

Friedman would not divulge the expected buy-in from the owners, although a press release announcing the new company says customers will have to pay to bring their aircraft up to date and that sales representatives will work at no charge with owners who can not afford the work “to find new buyers who have the means to pay for the upgrades”.

Aviation analyst and Eclipse sceptic Richard Aboulafia believes restarting production of the Eclipse 500 will be “virtually impossible unless they can find an investor who doesn’t care about profit and loss, like the Russian government”. He says: “The odds are overwhelmingly against newcomers in this business, particularly ones that have a record of burning through billions of dollars with a highly suspect business plan. As for the existing jets, I can’t imagine they’d have much more than a curiosity value. On the one hand, the fleet size could superficially make a case for an aftermarket support organisation – this wasn’t a Beech Starship production run. On the other hand, many of the planes delivered need a great deal of work done to them, and that business case probably isn’t there either.”

Bringing Eclipse back to life will take more than the support of 260 owners according to aviation lawyer and senior member of the air taxi association Mark Fava. New bidders are going to have to lure greater numbers to the fold, but the poor treatment by Eclipse of many “former believers” has left a “bad taste in the mouths of many” says Fava.

“It’s going to be a huge task for anyone to put this company back on the road – not just financially. Suppliers have been badly burned and customers have been badly burned and they are going to take a lot of convincing to come back. After all, without them you don’t have a business.” Fava’s views are supported by Europe’s beleaguered army of Eclipse owners and deposit holders. Here the airframer’s struggles and subsequent demise has sunk the hopes, ambitions and significant investments of a plethora of private owners and operators that only a year ago were eagerly anticipating how the arrival of the Eclipse 500 in Europe would revolutionise both commercial and private travel across the continent.

“We had expected to have five Eclipse 500s in the fleet by now and be making a return on our investment,” says Mike Ryan, chief executive of aircraft charter broker One Charter. “Our plan was to have 20 aircraft in our fleet within five years based across Europe providing low-cost air taxi operations. Instead, we have no aircraft, our [would-be management] customers and investors have lost thousands of pounds in non-refundable deposits and the years of work setting up the business has come to nothing,” Ryan says.

Charter One will continue to operate as an aircraft broker. “We have battened down the hatches until we can come up with another plan. While we still believe in the Eclipse 500 as a product, the new owner will have to do a lot of work to secure its financial future as well make vital improvements to the aircraft – notably to the avionics before we take the risk again,” he adds.

LOST INVESTMENTS

Meanwhile, Ryan says he will not enlist the help of a bankruptcy lawyer to claw back the lost deposits. “Lawyers came crawling out of the woodwork when Eclipse entered Chapter 11 last year, saying they could fight our corner, but what is the point of paying someone vast sums of money to be told what we already know – that we don’t stand a chance of getting the money back.”

Icelandic start-up Acceljet, which has placed 10% deposits on two Eclipse 500s totalling over $300,000, is equally pessimistic about getting its money returned. “When Eclipse increased the price of the jet last year [to $2.15 million], they promised to give us our deposit back, but we never received any money from them,” says Acceljet chief executive Einar Arnarsson, who had planned to offer a low-cost air taxi operation from the company’s Reykjavik base.

“Our venture was based on low direct operating costs that could be passed on to the customer, making private jet travel affordable.” When the aircraft’s price rises, the low-cost model ceases to be viable, he adds. “There is no chance that we will get our money back now,” says Arnarsson, ” and I will never return to Eclipse again. I have lost confidence in the company completely.” Arnarsson says plans by the bidders to charge $300,000 for aircraft modifications are unjust. “It is totally wrong to charge customers for upgrades – avionics and known icing for example – that were to be provided by Eclipse for nothing,” says Arnarsson. “It feels like we [owners, deposit holder and creditors] are all prisoners of Eclipse.”

Spanish air taxi operator and management company TaxiJet is equally pessimistic about the prospects of securing the deposits of its 14 Spanish Eclipse 500 owners, which collectively total more than $3 million. Yet the Madrid-based company has grouped together with “as many Spanish owners as possible” to try to reclaim what they can of their investments. “We aren’t hopeful of getting any money back, but we have to do something,” says TaxiJet managing director Conor Neill, who is set to hold talks with Friedman this month in the hope that “some assurances” can be met. “It’s a positive step that Eclipse’s former chief financial officer has a bid on the table, but it is important that we keep the 260-strong Eclipse fleet flying,” says Neill. “Parts are still being supplied for the aircraft, and maintenance in Europe is being offered by Aerlyper in Madrid. But we have to make sure that the service centres continue to stay alive, suppliers have a reason to keep the parts flowing and make sure that all the aircraft are legally able to fly otherwise it won’t be long before the FAA withdraws the aircraft’s type certificate – and that will be disastrous.”


China’s Kunpeng to be first to fly ARJ21

By Leithen Francis

Shenzhen Airlines’ regional arm Kunpeng Airlines will be the first to fly China’s new regional jet, the ARJ21.

The first operator was originally supposed to be Shandong Airlines but a senior source at Shenzhen Airlines says its regional carrier Kunpeng aims to take delivery of its first ARJ21 in late 2010 and it, rather than Shandong, will be the first to operate the aircraft.

A source in Shandong Airlines’ Jinan headquarters also confirms it is no longer the launch operator for the ARJ21.

The move came after Shandong underwent a management change, says the source, adding that the new management “put this request to the manufacturer that we don’t want to be the launch” operator.

Shandong still plans to operate ARJ21s eventually, adds the source, who was unable to say when it will receive its first example.

Kunpeng’s move to be the first to operate the ARJ21 has implications for rival aircraft-maker Embraer.

The source at Shenzhen says Kunpeng operates three Embraer E-190s and is due to receive a fourth this month, a fifth in May and three more in this year’s second half.

Kunpeng last year signed a firm order for five E-190s and said at the time it planned to eventually buy 50 in total but was waiting on Chinese Government approval to order more.

The source says the airline still plans to keep adding E-190s but because it is getting ARJ21s it will delay later E-190 deliveries.

In December 2007 Shenzhen Airlines’ chairman Li Kun signed an agreement – on behalf of Kunpeng Airlines – for the order for 50 ARJ21s and options for 50 more.

The signing was done during a nationally televised roll-out of the ARJ21.

Besides E-190s, Kunpeng also had five Bombardier CRJ200s it was leasing from US airline company Mesa Air Group but the source says Kunpeng has since returned these.

Mesa is a major shareholder in Kunpeng but it announced last year it would be selling its shares to majority owner Shenzhen Airlines.

The Shenzhen source says the two sides have already signed a letter-of-intent regarding the sale. The “final contract will be signed shortly, sometime within this month”, adds the source.

Mesa Air Group controls 49% of Kunpeng via two companies registered in China. Shenzhen Airlines has majority control with 51%.

Executives from ARJ21’s manufacturer, Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), were not immediately available for comment.