Aerospace

The 10 greatest spaceflight and aviation innovations of the year

Comets Finally Get Their Closeup

Rosetta Comet
Rosetta: Comets Finally Get Their Closeup
For the first time in history, humans put a spacecraft in orbit around a comet and, in another first, landed on it. The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft traveled 10 years and nearly 4 billion miles to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Once it arrived in November 2014, the Philae lander descended to the comet's surface, bounced, and came to rest in a dark area near the edge of a crater. Unable to recharge through its solar panels, Philae went into hibernation—but not before transmitting data about 67P's makeup, internal structure, and wealth of organic molecules. As the comet hurtled toward the sun, the Rosetta orbiter stuck with it, observing as its frozen gases warmed and escaped into space. This data should provide valuable clues to the history of our solar system.Courtesy European Space Agency

Ultra-Efficient Folding Wings

Boeing 777X: Ultra-Efficient Folding Wings
Boeing 777X
Wing size matters—bigger wings generate greater lift, which can improve an airplane’s fuel efficiency. With a 235-foot wingspan, one of the largest in the industry, Boeing’s new 777X twin-engine airliner will undercut its competitors in both fuel consumption and operating costs per seat. Thanks to their carbon-fiber composition, the wings are both strong and flexible—and the tips even fold up so today’s airports can accommodate their wider span.Courtesy Boeing

The App That Will Make Emergency Landings

Xavion app from X-Avionics
X-Avionics Xavion: The App That Will Make Emergency Landings
If its pilot passes out, an airplane is in serious trouble. But the new Xavion app from X-Avionics might save it. Used in conjunction with an autopilot interface, the app can take over a craft's controls and guide it to a safe, albeit hard, landing. For an active pilot in an emergency situation, the app provides routes and beacons to the nearest airport, acting as a virtual co-pilot.Eric Adams

Fastest Helicopter

Sikorsky Aircraft S-97 Raider: Fastest Helicopter
Sikorsky Aircraft S-97 Raider: Fastest Helicopter
Designed by Sikorsky as an attack and transport vehicle for the U.S. military, the S-97 Raider has a top speed of 276 miles per hour, nearly twice that of a conventional helicopter. It's also quieter, can climb higher, has a smaller turning radius, and—thanks to a rigid coaxial rotor and pusher propeller—is more precise and maneuverable. The full-size vehicle, which can carry two crew members and six soldiers, took its maiden flight this May.Courtesy Sikorsky Aircraft

Real-World Drone Delivery

DHI Parcelcopter: Real-World Drone Delivery
DHI Parcelcopter: Real-World Drone Delivery
In late 2014, shipping company DHL began making several deliveries a day to the remote North Sea island of Juist, Germany, dropping off medical supplies and other necessary goods. And for the first time in a real-world program, autonomous flying drones performed the work. The Parcelcopters persisted even in high winds, rain, snow, and cold temperatures. The pilot program proved that, in case of emergency, deliveries needn’t rely on pre-scheduled, human-operated services.Courtesy DHL

Voyage To Pluto

Voyage To Pluto
New Horizons: Voyage To Pluto
When New Horizons launched almost 10 years ago, our sharpest image of Pluto was a fuzzy ball. This summer, the mission's flyby captured stunningly clear photos of the dwarf planet—and the never-before-seen heart-shaped area on its surface. In addition to cameras, New Horizons carries the most comprehensive suite of instruments ever sent to an unexplored world. The probe will study Pluto's atmosphere and composition, and teach us more about how our solar system formed.Courtesy NASA

Vertical Takeoff In A Civilian Airplane

A small white and silver plane in a corrugated-metal hangar
TriFan 600: Vertical Takeoff In A Civilian Airplane
For the executive who has everything, now there's the TriFan 600, an airplane and helicopter in one. The six-seat concept will use three ducted fans to rise vertically like a helicopter. Once it's airborne, two fans will pivot to generate forward momentum and provide lift so it can fly like a conventional jet. This August, after three years of development, XTI announced a crowdfunding campaign, which will cover a portion of the program's costs and give potential buyers a chance to back it.Image courtesy XTI Aircraft Co.

A Manned Rocket For Tourists

A stocky little rocket is taking off from a launch pad against a clear blue sky
New Shepard: A Manned Rocket For Tourists
Blue Origin's launch of New Shepard in April marked the first successful test of a vertically launched vehicle to lift tourists and researchers into suborbital space. The crew capsule separated from its booster, as planned, and parachuted safely back to Earth. The booster is designed to be reusable too, though a hydraulics failure prevented it from sticking the landing. Blue Origin has made New Shepard's BE-3 engine available for licensing, which means other companies could also use it to get off the ground.Courtesy Blue Origin

Longest Solar-Powered Flight

A small glider-style plane with solar panels on the tops of its wings, flying over a dusty urban desert landscape
Solar Impulse 2: Longest Solar-Powered Flight
Solar Impulse 2 has flown past a few world records in its quest to circumnavigate the globe. By spending nearly five days in the air this summer (117 hours and 52 minutes, to be exact), the plane made the longest nonstop flight by a solar-powered aircraft. Piloted by co-creator André Borschberg, it was also the longest solo flight ever. During the day, 17,248 solar cells provided power, and the airplane stored energy in lithium-polymer batteries to stay aloft through the night.Courtesy Solar Impulse

Swarming Micro-Drones

A small yellow semi-circlular vechile with electronics on the surface
CICADA: Swarming Micro-Drones
Picture a paper airplane made of circuit boards, and you've just conjured a Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft (CICADA)—an inexpensive, 2.5-ounce glider developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Dropped from midair and guided by a GPS system, the micro-UAV can adjust flaps on its wings to crash-land within feet of a target located miles away. In swarms of dozens, or even hundreds, CICADAs could serve as cameras, microphones, sensors, and weapons detectors, or form a communications network.Courtesy Naval Research Laboratory