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NASA heli-capsule could let astronauts land anywhere


October 26, 2012

This image depicts what astronauts may someday use to return from orbit (Image: NASA)

This image depicts what astronauts may someday use to return from orbit (Image: NASA)

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Space exploration once captured the world's imagination. In the 1960s and 1970s, children dreamed of satellites, lunar rovers, and walking on the moon. Today – decades after Sputnik, Neil Armstrong, and the Apollo missions – many children may not even know what a space capsule is.

Some of those children from the Space Race years, though, grew up to work at NASA. Public indifference be damned, those engineers are still dreaming of new ways of improving the wondrous technologies of yesteryear. If they have their way, one of the iconic symbols of that era – the space capsule – may have an upgrade on the horizon.

Rekindling an old idea

This model may help the researchers figure out how to use wind-powered propellors (Photo: NASA)

Researchers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida are testing a rotor system that would let space capsules fly like helicopters. Originally proposed during the Apollo days, the idea had been abandoned in favor of easier (and cheaper) parachutes. The downside of parachutes, though, is that they require a water landing. So, today's NASA is reinvestigating.

A heli-capsule could land gently, and nearly anywhere. Imagine astronauts returning from a mission, guiding their capsule onto the roof of an office high-rise. Or perhaps they would softly land their vessel in a rural field. This level of control would provide a wider array of options for re-entry and landing.

The helicopter-like design wouldn't, however, be powered by an engine. The researchers are looking for ways to activate the capsule's blades without using any power. The idea is to use wind to activate the propellors – a concept that NASA says has been used in helicopters, but never in spacecrafts.

An engineer at Kennedy, Les Boatright, likens the project to modern mobile devices:

    "A hundred years ago, there were cameras and there were phones and there were wireless devices to send Morse code and they were all separate technologies on their own. Now you have a telephone that does all three of those things and it's a merger of technology. Well, this is taking the capsule entry technology and helicopter rotor technology and merging those in an innovative way to make something that didn’t exist before out of two things that did exist before."

Early stages

NASA engineer Jeff Hagen prepares a model capsule for testing (Photo: NASA)

The helicopter/capsule project is still in the early planning stages, so any real-world implementation could be years away. The next stage would be dropping one of the capsules from a high-altitude balloon (perhaps they could ask Felix Baumgartner). It may then be used for retrieving samples from the International Space Station before being added to bigger space missions.

A heli-capsule may not be enough to get a new generation of children dreaming about space, but it could make return landings a bit safer for some of those children of the 60s and 70s. You can read more on the project at the primary source below.

Source: NASA via Dvice

About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin is Gizmag's Mobile Tech Editor, and has been part of the team since 2012. Before finding a home at Gizmag, he had stints at a number of other sites, including Android Central, Geek and the Huffington Post. Will has a Master's degree from U.C. Irvine and a Bachelor's from West Virginia University. He currently lives in New Mexico with his wife, Jessica. All articles by Will Shanklin

An auto rotating rotor like on a gyroplane or a helicopter doing an engine out decent?

Baden Holt

From the NASA page: "Control fins would open on the side of the capsule, too, to keep it from revolving with the blades."

Yeah, 'cause pureed astronauts would suck.

Rolf Hawkins

Just like the movie "The Incredibles" AMIRITE?

Matthew Faunce

Intricate, expensive, undependable... all for a marginal benefit. NASA style!


It sounds very much like Rotary Rocket's landing to me.


This has already been done. The roton spacecraft used rotors for deceleration and also could power the rotors for extended controlled flight. See it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Kp63-an2ts&feature=related

Michael Crumpton

And... autorotation? Any information at all on how they'd counter that?

Also seems a bit redudant in comparison to the VTOL capabilities of the Dragon 2.0 design; where escape, OMS, and landing are all integrated into one system.

John Routledge

Silly idea and how would you get the rotors to deploy? Where would they come from? You cannot steer a non powered helicopter. This is a half baked idea.

The Hoff

Yeah, right. "Parachutes ... require a water landing."

Not. See "Soyuz".

Anne Ominous

re; The Hoff

To get the rotors to deploy you release them into the airstream. Not unlike a parachute. The rotors would lay flat against the sides of the capsule until released. You can in fact steer an auto-rotating helicopter if the controls have not been compromised by whatever took out your engine. In fact if you have lost control of your anti-toque rotor auto-rotating improves your ability to control the helicopter during landing. While I prefer conventionally winged reentry and landing vehicles this is far better than just being at the mercy of the wind under parachutes.


If this works properly, it would be like a certain tree seed( Don't ask me the name) I see that falls circling to the ground, nice idea, now to build something that reusable Very fuel efficient without emmiting radiation when you're done with it.


The world has moved on from the space race? What an odd statement. You seem to be suggesting that NASA is an anachronism and space exploration is no longer fashionable. And what do you suppose the rest of the world has moved on to? iPhones?


Helicopters are one thing, autogyros another. Autorotation is a function of an un-powered rotor with stabilization coming from the forward motion of the craft. Autogyros do not do not apply torque to the rotor unless sitting on the landing gear to stabilize before take-off. This would allow it a very short take-of roll in autorotation, something occasionally done from the roof of a tall building. Obviously landing on such a platform was performed as well in autorotation. Generally helicopters have either counter-rotating blades or tail rotors to allow zero-roll takeoffs and landings, but it is possible to build a 'copter without either of those atributes if the blades are self powered in some way. Then only residual bearing friction needs to be countered in the main body and some means of direction keeping used. Perhaps the small thrusters a spacecraft already has would be enough for this purpose.

Paul Gracey

Hmm....maybe a have a large clock spring in the tip of the capsule, and make the rotor blades angle changable. As it descends, the blades rotate one way, and control the descent and wind the spring. At the critical point, the angle of the blades would change, and the spring would unwind, slowing the capsule futher, and allowing the capsule to land gently. also, if fins don't work to allow for no tail rotor, maybe use counter-rotational blades? I don't know if it would all fit, though....


"The downside of parachutes, though, is that they require a water landing."

Gee, I think the Russians might disagree with that.


"The downside of parachutes, though, is that they require a water landing."

That's not what NASA wrote, because it's not true. Soyuz capsules have been using parachutes and returning to terra firma since 1968. They continue to do so even now.


@ The Hoff, you're right. I think NASA should just quit until someone walks in with a plan that is perfected using only theory. I hate it when people try to do things, it always ends up in half baked ideas like the previously mentioned Morse code. They should have just waited for someone to invent multiplexing without first trying anything else...

Ali Kim

The downside of parachutes, though, is that they require a water landing.?? Don't Russian Capsules Parachute to Land? How do they do it?

Muhammad Kamran Arain

This is not a technical challenge, other than integration with the capsule. Not only have autogyros existed since the 1920s, but at least one type was successfully designed and tested to be dropped from an airplane with the rotors folded, deploy them and autorotate to a controlled, directed landing. It was never deployed, but it worked. The only thing wrong with this article is representing it as cutting edge technology. it's not only feasible, it's trivial.


This is such a great old idea that the REAL mystery is: How could NASA have not implemented it decades ago? I think it's strictly a result of $ and lobbying junkets. Very disheartening when a technological no-brainer is ignored - one of the reasons NASA is always near the top of my skeptic list even though I love everything astro.

Fritz Menzel

Well this is not a new concept, as early as 1973 I personally designed a powered two to four place rotor craft with a special self correcting anti torque design which we nicknamed, “Plopter” ©. This was very similar to the ROTON concept (but prettier) in that it stood vertically, had only one set of rotor blades (3 blades) hung off of a simplified rotor head and had no tail or tail rotor, and certainly it would have outdone the heli-capsule featured here had funding been available.

One key element of the Plopter was its ability to hover without deviation and to remain stable at all power settings whether in the hover or in horizontal flight. Fuel consumption was miserly while general performance was calculated to be equivalent to that of comparable helicopters of the day.

I had forgotten about this project until I read this article but I am sure that the original design drawings still do exist and I may consider revisiting this concept if and when time permits.

Keep dreaming and if you can imagine it, it is possible. Dan

Facebook User

A giant airbag will soften a parachute landing . Use an array of bags in a large field. Deploy only the bags needed on landing.

Stewart Mitchell

russian re-entry vehicles have a complex landing system relying on parachutes and rockets landing in water simplifies this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soyuz_spacecraft

At one meter above the ground, solid-fuel braking engines mounted behind the heat shield are fired to give a soft landing.

Panayis Zambellis

I agree with piolenc, this idea has been around for ages. Old Mother Nature came up with it first when she invented the sycamore seed before NASA, or even before our ancesters gave up swinging around from branch to branch and decided to come down onto terra firma a few million years ago. (Or 10,000 years ago in the big abracadabra when everything was created - "Not like that, like this!" as Tommy Cooper would have said.)

Mel Tisdale
It will require a tail of some sort of the capsule will rotate with the blades. There will need to be some sort of tilt applied to the rotors as well as auto rotation in a helicopter produces a shockingly hard landing. So some sort of forward motion is required which points to a landing area that allows the capsule to be dragged for a few feet. Gyrocopters require a small landing space and do not set down like a helicopter with power on. Really the easier solution might be much larger parachute so that the descent is slow enough to land on solid ground. Things like tanks and jeeps have been dropped by chute for many decades. Jim Sadler

How about WIND (atmosphere) driven blades that store energy in the form of a coiled spring, or hydraulics, on the way down, that could then be used for "power" during the final approach or landing? A simple autorotation type of landing (used in helicopter, power out emergency landings) are HARD landings....


@Dan, you say you designed a rotor craft. Did it ever get built, even in prototype? Lots of things change between paper and flight. I'm glad to see that Rotary's concept is getting some review. They had several decent test flights, and I suspect their worst problem was money. I wonder what ever happened to the intellectual property...

J.D. Ray

Some stray comments.

An unpowered rotor can definitely be steered , well at least mine used to when I would cut power and steer to land.

The rotor itself builds up energy in its speed of rotation, no spring unwinding is needed. You use the inertia in the rotating system to slow down and cushion your landing. Touchdown can be very smooth.

Landing to a building top. Probably not wise since you have one shot only before you bleed off all your rotor speed. Miss that and you get to enjoy a free fall the rest of the way.

When flying single engine helicopters in mountainous terrain, I always thought it more prudent to shoot for a valley landing rather than a pinnacle. If you miss the pinnacle you might have a nice roll down a steep mountainside. You can't fall from the bottom of a valley.

Dr. Veritas

Samara monocopter design should also be examined. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u23Hqq8QbeE

Jeremy Nasmith

re; Jim Sadler

The larger the parachute the heaver it is and this reduces the payload. Also the slower the decent the more at the mercy of the wind you are and you're more likely to be dragged along the ground.

While parachutes are a much better way to get to the ground than going splat they are still a lousy way to get back down.


re; Jeremy Nasmith

Just because you can does not mean that you should. There is a big difference between an under a kilo recon drone and a cargo carrier.


First of all, rotorcraft with rocket-powered tips do not need tail-rotors nor do those with twin-stacked counter-rotating rotors.

For other ways of flying without tail rotors, search&research: "notar helicopters"

I would also think that brute-force gyroscopes may be somewhere behind the scenes,"waiting in the wings", so to speak.

I wouldn't recommend landing on skyscrapers for awhile, though....


RE: J.D. Ray, "Plopter"

Thanks for taking an interest, yes money was the problem in our case also as the project failed to attract funding, I think that this was in part due to the fact that the concept seemed to be too simplistic to be viable, simplicity was the beauty of it in actual fact.

We never did build a full sized prototype but we did have a number of models for wind tunnel testing and a remote controlled 1/4 scale model ballasted with 200lb of shot which preformed extremely well. I wanted to keep this model and take it home so as I could keep working on the design but unfortunately and as happens all too often, it was destroyed by the powers that be.

The anti-torque characteristic was achieved by a combination of hull design/shape which essentially consisted of a spiral fluted outer shell which imparted opposite pressure to that of the rotor, the greater the air flow over the flutes the greater the pressure/horizontal thrust, very simple.

Also, the shape of the outer hull/skin provided a certain amount of vertical lift in the same way as a wing achieves lift when air flows over its upper surface, the compressed/speeded up air flow in this case also provided a 'push' on the lower portion of the hull, again very simple stuff which contributed to overall fuel economy of the design.

As you can imagine, steering and directional control was easily achieved by simply tilting the rotor slightly and adjusting vanes on the lower section of the spirals to deflect the air flow. I guess that nowadays we would do this with the aid of a computer controlled stability system.


Facebook User

I wonder if this kind of technology can be used as an alternative to the Curiosity probe landing on Mars.

It may not be possible to get it down to a speed where it could be useful however, considering the atmosphere on Mars is about the same pressure as Earth's at 100,000 odd feet up.

So would such a device start autorotating at 100,000 feet on Earth?

The air pressure there is something on the order of one torr, and 760 torr at the surface of earth.

On Mars it is somewhere around 1 torr on the surface.

Don Jennings

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The only way I can see this thing landing without spinning like a whirling Dervish, is to have two sets of counter-rotating blades. Each would be working to delay the promise of gravity, and each would counter eachother.


Dan, the Plopter design sounds quite a bit like it used the Coanda effect. Hit youtube and search for coanda effect flying saucer.

The idea of a rotary wing landing craft goes back at least to 1974 in Josef F. Blumrich's "The Spaceships of Ezekiel".

Gregg Eshelman


The 1/4 scale model ballasted with 200lb. of weight sounds very intriguing. Having designed this, and given that "the powers that be" later insisted that it be destroyed, did anybody think to take a photo of it? Or make a super-8 movie? Or maybe steal it prior to destruction?

It's tragic when good inventions are destroyed instead of developed, for whatever reason. If it flew, someone, somewhere must've photographed it!

Nonetheless, it must've been an EXTREMELY well-kept secret, as even so-called "secret" technology from the 60s and 70s gets google hits now. The term "plopter" now gets about 3,000 hits, and the only aviation reference is to the MV-22 Osprey or its prototypes, which are not like your description.

What was it powered by? Would it fly by itself (under remote-control of course)? Blade swept area? RPM? Shrouded blades?

Why not resurrect the idea, do an animation and put it on youtube? You might find it gets some funding! Was there a patent? I can't find it.

As Gregg says, if using the Coanda effect with a shrouded impeller, the torque effects can be done away with without too much trouble.


re; kellory

Assuming that spinning the entire vehicle is considered bad* the only twisting imparted on the Capsule comes from friction in the bearings. The effect would be quite minimal.

*The cargo or passengers can't withstand the angular acceleration.


@ Sleat Re the "Plopter', you must remember that this was developed over 40 years ago as a low budget project, we were just a bunch of young guys working in a hanger in Florida with minimal materials, our project was to develop guidance systems, not flying craft. The 1/4 scale model was powered by a reworked 4 cylinder engine we pulled out of a Subaru and yes, I have my original designs somewhere in my files and some Polaroid photo's of the test flights but again please remember, this was in the pre-digital pre-internet age. And we barely had a computer, we mostly used slide rules if you know what these are, our work was as much art as science. But it worked, and it worked really well! I'm guessing that the helicopter manufactures probably wouldn't have liked this new concept one little bit. It was so simple and to use a modern term, organic in its design.

Facebook User

I'm having trouble seeing how this scheme could work. Helicopter blades derive their stiffness through their angular momentum, so they can support the helicopter, or, in this case it would be a plummeting spacecraft. When first deployed while the craft is falling through atmosphere, they wouldn't be rotating and would simply fold up or get torn off. This is one thing helicopter pilots worry about — a LOT. Rotor rpm must be maintained in a narrow range. If the rotor speed is excessive, the blades get overstressed and can separate at the hub, turning the helicopter into a brick. If the rotor speed is too low, the aircraft experiences what is called "blade blowback" and, again, it turns into a brick.

Dave Wilcox


Still sounds like worth looking at again.

Here are a few "low budget projects" from the 70's (i.e. Started under $1 million budget on a shoestring)

F15 F16 XM1 abrams tank B1 F117 Space Shuttle Apple Computer

" And we barely had a computer, we mostly used slide rules if you know what these are,"

Yes, I know what a sliderule is. They came in handy before dad brought the HP 67 home from the lab. I have one lying around, and a rotary metal E6b, and even one on the bezel of a watch. The 70s wasnt all that long ago!

Anyway, I'm sure everybody'd be interested in seeing this design, it sounds cool!

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