Nov. 3, 1997 Astronauts and engineers have successfully concluded tests on a computer-generated virtual laboratory that will allow researchers -- located anywhere in the world -- to study potentially dangerous aircraft and spacecraft situations without risking human life.
In the past, pilots, aerospace engineers and scientists who were directly involved in tests had to be physically present in a building that houses the world's largest flight simulator at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA.
"The lab can enable research organizations and many other parties to collaborate long-distance for the first time," said the lab's project manager, Tom Alderete. "It could also be used by universities, research laboratories and industry to develop a wide variety of products beyond the aerospace field," he said.
Ames' simulator is able to move airplane and spaceship cockpits in all directions, including 60 feet vertically and 40 feet horizontally. There are five interchangeable cockpits that are used to simulate the Space Shuttle, helicopters, airplanes and other aerospace vehicles.
Researchers study aerospace controls, guidance, cockpit displays, automation and handling qualities of existing or proposed aircraft or other vehicles. The simulator creates a convincing environment for a pilot and is controlled by computers programmed to represent each aircraft.
Computers calculate correct aircraft response when a pilot changes simulator cockpit controls. In real time, responses by the simulator include cockpit motion, images in the windshield, sounds and control readouts. Simulations are monitored from control labs at Ames.
"From a place miles away, you can use the hand controller to 'walk around' a three-dimensional, computerized world that represents our test facilities here at Ames. You can even move into the cockpit," said Julie Mikula, of Ames' simulations operations branch.
"A teleresearcher can see a computer animation of the cockpit's motion and can even view what the pilot sees out of the cockpit," she added. Any kind of a vehicle -- a car, boat, plane, train, or spaceship -- can be simulated and "recreated" practically any place around the world, said Mikula.
The virtual laboratory's data communications are enabled by the NASA Research and Education Network. According to the network's project manager, Christine Falsetti, "Experience with real time computer files that the virtual lab uses also helps us learn how to better use computer networks to help do research in the future." The virtual laboratory and the "world" it creates exists partly in computer memory and other physical gear.
In June, astronauts made simulated Space Shuttle landings using a huge motion simulator at Ames while NASA engineers in Houston monitored the sessions using the three-dimensional "world" that includes video screens, computer video, two-way video conferencing, shared whiteboards, remote data access and even a pilot's out-the-window scene.
Future uses of the laboratory also being considered include design of new spacecraft and training for astronauts.
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