X-48C front

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.--NASA may best be known for its space missions, but out in the Mojave Desert, it also has been working on experimental aircraft and flight research for years.

Indeed, at the Dryden Flight Research Center -- located at Edwards Air Force Base -- the space agency has been working alongside some of the country's leading aerospace companies to try to come up with the next generation of airplanes.

An example is the X-48, an early attempt at what is known as a hybrid wing body.

This is the X-48C, a prototype for the new type of plane.

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Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

Behind the X-48C

The objective of a prototype hybrid wing body airplane like the X-48C -- which is an 8.5 percent scale version of an eventual full-sized plane -- is to demonstrate that the style of aircraft has potential. Already, NASA and its contractor partners, Boeing, and Cranfield Aerospace, have made 92 test flights with a previous iteration, the X-48B.

The X-48C has yet to fly, and researchers estimate it could be 10 years or more before the full-sized version takes to the air.

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X-48C above back right

Hybrid wing body airplanes could have many different uses, including as tankers, cargo transporters, command and control planes, bombers, or commercial airliners. There is some worry that because the design doesn't support windows, paying passengers wouldn't want to fly on them. However, there is also some thought that virtual windows could offer a solution to that problem.

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X-48C left side

Hybrid wing body airplanes could have many different uses, including as tankers, cargo transporters, command and control planes, bombers, or commercial airliners. There is some worry that because the design doesn't support windows, paying passengers wouldn't want to fly on them. However, there is also some thought that virtual windows could offer a solution to that problem.

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Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

SOFIA

This is SOFIA -- the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy -- based out of Dryden's Palmdale, Calif. facility, and is a former Pan-Am Boeing 747-SP specially retrofitted with a large telescope and a purpose-built door that opens to allow for observations into the deep night sky.

SOFIA is used for, among other things, studying dust out in the stars, explained Eric Becklin, the project's chief science adviser. "Dust forms planets and us," he said. "We are studying the dust we come from."

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Photo by: NASA / Caption by:

SOFIA telescope

This is the front -- non-mirror -- side of NASA's SOFIA telescope. The telescope is designed to stay steady even during a bumpy flight, by being balanced on a 1.2-meter ball bearing. SOFIA can operate in the stratosphere, at altitudes of between 41,000 and 45,000 feet.

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Visible and IR views of Orion

These are two images of the constellation Orion. On the left is the visible light version, and on the right is the infrared version. "These images dramatically illustrate how features that cannot be seen in visible light show up very brightly in the infrared."

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SOFIA bulkhead

In order for SOFIA to be stable on board the NASA 747, and for the plane to be structurally sound, this giant bulkhead had to be built around the telescope.

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Special door

In order for the SOFIA telescope to be able to view the sky, the 747-SP had to have this special door built into it. The door is designed to be opened while in flight, even while the plane is in the stratosphere.

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F-15B

This NASA F-15B is used by the Dryden Flight Research Center to conduct supersonic research. This is done by hanging sensors from the plane's belly, which are meant to validate various theories about supersonic flight.

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F-18 with bendable wings

This NASA F-18 is part of an experiment into whether or not airplanes can be controlled entirely by bending their wings in flight. Such a design would allow the planes to fly without control surfaces on the wings, which is thought to offer much more efficient flight than today's planes.

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Global Hawk

At Dryden, NASA operates two Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles, like this one. They are used mainly for Earth science research, including studying holes in the ozone, hurricanes, the tropical tropopause, a layer in the sky found between 12 and 16 kilometers above the Earth's surface.

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X-1E

This is NASA's X-1E, a plane that was part of a series of planes -- including Chuck Yeager's X-1 -- that were early leaders in the supersonic flight race.

According to NASA, "The X-1E, the last of the X-1 aircraft series, was used to obtain in-flight data at twice the speed of sound, with particular emphasis placed on investigating the improvements achieved with the high-speed wing. The airplane was the first aircraft to fly supersonically with a 4 percent wing, and thus the first to prove the high-mach capability and adequate stability using a thin airfoil section.

"The X-1E made 26 flights and a captive flight with two NACA High-Speed Flight Station test pilots. It flew to a Mach of 2.24 and an altitude of 73,458 feet. Like its predecessors is was air launched from a Boeing B-29."

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Dropsonde

The NASA Global Hawks can carry dozens of these devices, known as dropsondes, and drop them into hurricanes, where they can gather many kinds of data, such as wind velocity, temperature, and relative humidity, and send them back to the plane in real time.

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DC-8 instruments

NASA owns this DC-8 and operates it as a flying laboratory. The airplane has been outfitted with a large number of special instruments that are mounted on its fuselage, and which can record a number of different data as the plane flies.

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Dryden Control room

This is a look at one of Dryden's control rooms, where scientists and VIP guests can monitor NASA flights, whether they are being run out of Dryden, or from another of the space agencies centers. On the screen is recorded data from one of SOFIA's flights.

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Shuttle carrier

Now that the Space Shuttle program has ended, NASA has flown its two Shuttle carrier 747s to the Mojave Desert. One is currently parked at Dryden at Edwards, while the other is parked outside Dryden's Palmdale, Calif. facility.

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