FlightGear v2.6 Release Candidates

This is the place to find the v2.6.0 release candidates as they become available.  We would really love for everyone to download these “test” releases and give them a try.  The target date for the official FlightGear v2.6.0 release is February 17.

Download FlightGear v2.6 Release Candidates:

What’s New?

I think I found a bug …

  • Please review the following FlightGear forum topic.  Here you can get some ideas on what to look for and what to test.  And if you do find something wrong, where to post bug reports so they can get properly addressed.

What would it be like to fly a rocket into space?

Do you want to earn your astronaut’s wings?

Author: Thorsten Renk

Real spaceships aren’t actually piloted into orbit. The risk that a human being, strapped to his acceleration seat and under a crushing acceleration of 4 g for a prolonged period of time is unable to fly with the precision required to reach orbit is far too great, and real spacecraft reach orbit on autopilot.

But what would it be like? Welcome to a scenario in which a Russian Vostok spacecraft has been acquired by the USA and fitted for a manually flown mission.

This is the launch vehicle assembled at Edwards Airforce Base. The actual capsule is hidden under an aerodynamically formed protective cover. Below it is the third stage of the rocket, with its exhaust nozzle visible. All this is mounted on top of the huge first and second stage. Unlike many US rockets, which use sequentially burning stages, the first stage of the Vostok launch vehicle consists of four boosters which burn along with the long, cylindrical second stage.

The inside of the spacecraft is a very small place. There are no big windows (and currently the protective cover blocks the view outside in any case), so there is not so much to see except the instruments. In front of me is the main instrument panel, and to the right is the stage control panel, left of it the control handle.

Here’s a closeup onto the main instrument panel. Since I won’t be able to see anything of the outside during much of the ascent and the descent, this is what I will have to navigate with. The most important instruments are in the lower half of the panel – altimeter, inertial speed indicator, vertical speed indicator, dynamical pressure, orientation and acceleration. This isn’t enough to fly with any precision, say to rendezvous with ISS – but that’s not what the Vostok is for, it’s made to carry a human into orbit and back, and this is what I will do.

One of my most important aids however is a handwritten cue sheet which tells me roughly at what altitude, velocity and orientation the rocket should be at a given time. Without such reference, it is very hard to gauge whether the rocket is on a good ascent path or not.

Unfortunately, the ‘not being able to see too much’ is also a technical limitation. The Flightgear rendering engine is not designed to handle views from low Earth orbit, and even with the cutting edge development high altitude and extreme visibility rendering I’m using in the following, the view doesn’t really measure up to real views of Earth from orbit.

After igniting the engine, the thrust takes a few seconds to ramp up, but the Vostok rocket delivers a solid 2 g initial thrust with first and second stage burning, so I lift off quickly. After the first few seconds, I rotate the rocket around its main axis such that I am facing my launch heading. To make use of Earth’s rotation, launches are done eastward. As soon as I reach the desired heading, I push the ascent path out of the vertical along my launch vector to about 60 degrees with the horizon. During ascent, I will thus be more and more hanging face-down in the capsule, facing Earth at all times. Which is very reasonable, because in case of any instrument malfunction, this gives me at least a rough visual reference. Of course, the actual forces in the capsule are nothing like hanging face-down, the acceleration always pushes me back into the seat.

After passing about 20.000 ft, the dynamical pressure starts growing large, and I have to throttle back to avoid damage to the rocket. After all, a rocket is little more than a thin shell around fuel tanks: For instance, the second stage weighs roughly 100 tons at liftoff, but its empty weight is a bit over 7 tons. The air thins rapidly, however, and thus the dynamical pressure decreases quickly and I go to full thrust again. Once above the pressure peak, I push the nose of the rocket further down to 30 degrees with the horizon and start building up forward velocity while Edwards AFB vanishes below.

The full power of the JSBSim flight dynamics and atmosphere model affects this part of the ascent, and so the interaction between rocket and atmosphere is as realistic as the available data on the Vostok can make it.

After about 90 seconds, the fuel of the first stage boosters is almost spent, and the reduced mass of the launch vehicle ramps up the acceleration to 4 g and beyond. Once again, I throttle back to stay below 4 g to avoid damage to the rocket. At about 120 seconds, the first stage is out of fuel, and I separate the boosters. I am now high enough that air friction is negligible, and so I also blast the protective cover off the capsule and can take the first look outside (nothing much to see though). The second stage is still heavy at this point, and so the thrust goes back to about 2 g as we climb the 100 km altitude limit into space.

The whole flight dynamics changes quite drastically during a mission from the initial launch vehicle to the re-entry of the capsule. Also the weight of spent fuel is a significant factor. All these effects are quite distinctly felt during ascent to orbit.

At this stage, I have to start watching my ascent casefully. The second stage separation should bring me roughly to my orbital altitude with about zero vertical speed so that the third stage burn just keeps me at this altitude while accelerating me to orbital velocity of a bit more than 28.000 km/h. However, the second stage reaches more than 4 g thrust towards the end of its burn, while the third stage starts with barely 0.5 g thust, so any mistake I make at this stage will at best take very long to correct with the 3rd stage burn, at worst be unrecoverable. Thus, I control the pitch angle very carefully and monitor altitude and vertical speed.

About 5 minutes after launch, the second stage burns out and I separate it as well and ignite the third stage. Flying a rocket is very different from flying an airplane – while an airplane reacts to its immediate surroundings and doesn’t remember much of what was five minutes ago, the rocket’s current state is pretty much determined by what happened the last five minutes. If the ascent to this stage was bad, there’s nothing much I can do to correct it now. But my altitude and speed after 2nd stafe separation are within reasonable parameters, and so I continue build up speed while keeping my altitude with the half g thrust the third stage provides.

Another five minutes later, close to reaching orbital velocity, I have to throttle down. The speed must be reached quite accurately, otherwise I might go into an elliptical orbit rather than an almost circular orbit. And this is problematic, because the TDU has even less thrust than the 3rd stage, so if the 3rd stage brings me too high, I might not be able to de-orbit at all.

There are also technical reasons – Flightgear currently isn’t designed to handle an altitude above 150 km, so I have to reach an orbit below 150 km and above 100 km where the atmosphere is thin enough.

I watch the perigee indicator carefully, and as it starts rapidly climbing, I separate the 3rd stage – I am in orbit! Apogee and perigee indicators read 128 km and 140 km, so while not completely circular, this is reasonably good.

Flying to this stage isn’t easy – only three Flightgear pilots have to my knowledge reached a stable orbit with the Vostok spacecraft. You have to work for your astronaut’s wings!

From this point, I only have the minimal thrust of the TDU available to turn the spacecraft and decelerate. Rather than aerodynamical controls, I now have to fire thrusters to change my attitude, so the spacecraft handles once again completely different.

JSBSim handles the attitude control thrusters just as well as the aerodynamical controls, and the spacecraft handles again very plausibly at this stage of the mission.

There’s not much to do while drifting along in the orbit. Look out and watching the sunrise is nice though.

The cutting-edge development experimental lightfield shader brings out the Earth shadow moving across the terrain, the stark shadows in low light and the differential light dependent on altitude very nicely.

To de-orbit, I turn the spacecraft around and fire the TDU main engine to use up the remaining fuel. This lower my perigee such that it intersects with the atmosphere – the friction will have to take care of the rest. Then I separate the TDU as well. At first, the first gentle touches of the atmosphere lead to a tumbling motion of the capsule, this then stabilizes as the drag increases, and I start falling faster and faster.

If you though the 4 g during ascent where tough, then you haven’t experienced re-entry yet. As the capsule finally reaches the lower atmosphere, a deceleration force of 8 g and more brutally brings me from orbital speed to a few hundred km/h. I simply black out during this stage.

Flightgear optionally simulates blackout and redout due to extreme acceleration at set limits.

By the time I get conscious again, I have an altitude of about 10 km and most of the speed is gone. Time to get the brake parachute out and kill the rest of the forward motion. After the braking parachute has done its job, I get the main parachute out, and once my vertical motion has slowed down, the final task is to activate the soft landing sensor.

Close to the US west coast, I gently splash into the ocean. Nothing to do now except to sit tight and wait for the recovery crew to pick me up…

Interview: Olivier Jacq

Q: How long have you been involved in FlightGear?

I’ve been following FG closely since FlightGear 0.9.8. So, checking on the Wiki, this already dates back to… 2005!

Q: What are your major interests in FlightGear?

At first, I was using FG as a “casual” user, mainly contributing positions in my local area (Brittany) and especially the Brest area (cause I’m not that good at 3D modelling!). So I would say my major interest is in definitely in the scenery side of FG – and HHS choppers!

Q: What project are you working on right now?

This is HIGHLY confidential! But because Christmas is coming soon, I’ll give you a small written preview on this early present! Still under development, I’m working on automated scripts to add/delete/update shared or static scenery objects/positions within FG, in order to ease the actual submission process, both for the user and the scenery maintainers. The tool to add unitary positions is now in production (see below)!

Q: What do you plan on doing in the future?

I have at least a few months before all scripts are finished and under production, so I think when they’re all done, I’ll take some time to use them and add more objects positions into FG myself!

Q: Are you happy with the way the FlightGear project is going?

I am especially happy to see the latest developments in FG, as the release plan and the many works going to make the scenery better: shaders, weather, and especially scenery which needs to be regenerated and enhance (have a look at the apt.dat 8.50 work in the forums, it’s awesome!). FG is really becoming better and very much comparable to other sims.

Q: What do you enjoy most about developing for FlightGear?

FG is relying on so many exciting parts: GIS, 3D modelling, database, web, network… and there are so many advanced technologies to implement (eg radio propagation early support)… it’s amazing and there is no other software where all this is needed but flight sims. A real concentrate of technology!

Q: Are there any “hidden features” you have worked on in FlightGear that new users may miss?

I was at the origin of the photorealistic scenery for Brest. To be precise, I had the idea and asked for the permission to use the data (as it is CC-BY-SA). Then Nels and others have been working on the patch for SG, etc.

Q: What advice can you give to new developers who want to get started on their first aircraft/new feature/Nasal script?

Well, they have to check that noone is already working on it, or to get in contact with him. Most of all, I would advise them to start on small projects first. For instance, a LOT of cockpits need enhancement. So try to make existing aircrafts better, rather than try to build yet another one from scratch. Keep this for later and focus on what needs to be enhanced now. FG will then look so much better to our fellow downloaders.

Q: Have you previously used other flight simulators or simulation software in general?

I remember having a flight simulator called “ILS” on my TRS-80… and next I moved, as a lot of people, on Microsoft Simulator when I was 7 or 8 on 10 Mb hard drives 😉

Q: Do you remember what first got you interested in FlightGear? How did you learn about FlightGear? In other words, why did you actually download and try FG?

FG was the only free and open source advanced flight simulator I found under GNU/Linux, so when I decided to moved my computer fully to GNU/Linux, the choice was quite easy. Its success and improved quality over the years confirmed this choice was good!

Q: Compared to other flight simulation software, what are FlightGear’s major benefits in your opinion?

Apart from the fact that it is free and opensource, I would say that its central scenery database and mapserver is one of its major features, compared to other flight sims where you have to download here, download there, add patches, etc… what a mess it becomes on your hard drive after a few years of addons!

Q: Do you think it is necessary to know how to program in order to contribute to FlightGear?

Not at all, contributing to scenery object positions is for instance very easy (it’ll be even easier after my script goes in production ;-). So everyone should be able to contribute to FG (in a proper manner), that’s the way to success!

Q: Have you ever used FlightGear professionally or for educational purposes?

I’ve been talking about it in my job, so show its quality, even sometimes compared to professional ones I have seen there. I would definitely recommand a stronger relationship between FG and professional/educational worlds.

Q: On average, how much time do you spend working with/contributing to FlightGear?

For a few weeks, I’ve been working for around 3 to 4 hours per week developing scripts. It’s been a while since I haven’t been having a flight in FG!

Q: Which of the more recent FlightGear developments do you consider most interesting/appealing?

I would definitely vote for the work on fgfs-contruct and 8.50 data format support. The anaglyph support is amazing too.

Q: Is there some feature that you’d truly like to see in FlightGear one day?

I hope sometimes we’ll be able to add GPL-photorealistic pictures on top of actual layers. Looking forward to OSM-based roads scenery release too and multi-core support.

Q: What do you think could be done to attract even more new users and contributors to FlightGear?

The fact that FG software is not localized into other languages can be a real drawback for some users and is often shown as such when magazines or forums talk about FG. If this support is added back, I will definitely work on the French translation!!

Q: What about interacting with the FlightGear community? Any tips/experiences you’d like to share?

As many others, I regret the way some people ask for features like: “do this aircraft, I NEED it”, or don’t even have a look at the Wiki or forums archives to get an answer to their questions. Ask politely, try to understand the way FG community is organised, search for archives, don’t pollute threads and everything will be better!

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

The future of FG belongs to you: each of you can make it better, whatever your skills or interests are. So don’t say: this is missing, try to add it or ask the community what you can do for help!