Last call for Airbus’s new military cargo plane
It’s four years late and an estimated $6 billion over budget, but Airbus’s ultra-light military cargo plane is finally poised to fly. When it does, the A400M will be the first craft that’s roomy enough to fit a modern military’s bulkiest tanks and choppers, light enough to land on just about any straight stretch of sand, mud, gravel or stone, and versatile enough to double as an in-flight refueling tanker, medevac, troop transport or surveillance plane.
By early summer, Airbus plans to have three test crafts aloft, each sporting four turboprop engines with counter-rotating propellers to reduce drag—an aviation first. Typically, propellers are fuel-efficient and great for low, slow-flying missions. With 44,000 horsepower, the A400M will have the ability to reach jetlike speed and altitude while hauling twice the cargo (almost 41 tons) over twice the distance (4,000 miles) as the aging turboprop plane it will replace. And because a third of the craft’s structure is made from carbon-fiber composite, the A400M can afford the extra weight to beef up its landing gear. Equipped with six pairs of titanium legs with low-pressure tires and hydraulic shock absorbers, the craft can land on soft or rough terrain, and do it so gently that A400Ms could set down on the same makeshift airfield 40 times without chewing it up.
It has been a long, hard road for the A400M. Six months ago, news of a major software glitch on its prized new engines ignited talk of customers like the U.K. canceling orders. If this year’s flights are successful, the company will make its first deliveries to France by 2013. With 192 planes on order from nine countries, the A400M could be the dominant hauler of the 21st century.
—Rena Marie Pacella
Who and What are Headed to Space
Say goodbye to a number of space projects - for now
Cassini Spacecraft: 1997–2010
Final act: Cassini finished its original mission of exploring Saturn and its moons in 2008. Its new Equinox mission to observe seasonal changes on Saturn extended its life to this year.
Second life? Likely to be extended again, Cassini will continue to send information and images until at least 2017. After that, researchers might crash it into Saturn to get more data about the planet, but only if they can find a way to get it through the rings intact.
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter: 2009–2010
Final act: Its successful primary lunar-exploration mission—searching for water and mapping suitable landing sites—ends this September.
Second life? Since it’s already up there, the orbiter’s instruments could be used for a longer, three-year science mission to measure, for example, the radiation reflected from the lunar surface or to study the evolution of the moon’s crust.
Odyssey orbiter: 2001–2010
Final act: The solar-powered craft ended its original Mars exploration mission in 2004. Odyssey will complete its third mission extension this year and is serving as the radio relay for NASA’s Mars rovers.
Second life? It will possibly make it to 2012 and beyond, where it could serve as a relay for NASA’s upcoming Mars Science Laboratory mission.
Deep Impact/EPOXI: 2005–2010
Final act: The spacecraft collected data from the comet Tempel I in 2005, showing that water ice exists on the surface of comets. The mission, renamed EPOXI in 2007, will study comet Hartley 2 late this year.
Second life? The craft could observe stars thought to have planets orbiting them, but no specific plans have been made for it.
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