NASA is looking to forge partnerships to fight global warming, the agency’s deputy administrator said on 18 July at the Farnborough Air Show.

Pam Melroy, a former astronaut who piloted two Space Shuttle missions and commanded a third, says that the space agency aims to work with industry as well as the Department of Defense (DoD) to develop and test new technologies that will help NASA reduce its own emissions, as well as work on future civilian aviation projects.

“The really tough thing is that our aircraft are operating at the highest part of the atmosphere, the thinnest part of atmosphere so our emissions have a disproportionate amount of impact,” Melroy says. Contrails, which are associated with non-CO2 emissions, are gaining prominence as having a hitherto untold impact on global warming.

aircraft emissions contrails

Source: Shutterstock

Aircraft contrails are a concern for NASA, which hopes to conduct research with partners

Though manufacturers are building ever-faster aircraft - which usually translates into more emissions - Melroy is confident that in the future the use of sustainable aviation fuels will mitigate those effects.

“We have to optimize to solve more than one problem at once,” she says.

Battery power is another area which NASA sees potential for its own aviation applications. The limited range of current battery technology means that hybrid propulsion systems may be more useful than pure electric aviation solutions.

“This is one of those things that will settle out in a while,” she says. “We are still so battery limited. I really think there’s a place in this world for all-electric aircraft. But I look at aviation and one of the things that’s concerned me is the lack of regional air mobility, which has an impact on rural areas,” Melroy says. Electric-only aircraft may not be the solution.

Hydrogen propulsion systems, currently being pursued by numerous companies, is an ambitious new field in which NASA hopes to also play a part. But there too, several problems need to be solved at once 

“Demonstrating that you can run an engine on hydrogen, is not the only part. You have to be able to store it, have a depot, transport it. The other challenge with hydrogen is scaling. When you are getting to long-haul [distances] hydrogen can be a big challenge,” Melroy says.