Airplanes of the future may look very different from those of today. One of the designs NASA has studied is the ring-wing, an aircraft with a circular wing. Build your own paper glider based on NASA's design, and work to improve your model's performance.

› Educators, explore how to turn this into a standards-aligned lesson for students

Materials for this activity


NASA airplane designs with different wing shapes

1. Explore wing designs

When you think about airplanes, there’s a good chance you think of a plane with wings extending out on either side of the plane. The wings provide lift that helps the airplane fly. But airplane wings also produce drag, which the airplane has to use energy to overcome. To solve this problem, engineers who design airplanes have come up with different wing designs that aim to increase lift and reduce drag, including "box plans" and "ring wings." Try your hand at making your own ring-wing glider out of paper, and see how it flies!

About the image: This collage shows various NASA airplane designs in flight, including (top left to right) the AD-1, HeliosX-48B Blended Wing Body, (bottom left to right) Proteus, inflatable wing aircraft, and Prandtl-d

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Folding the ring wing

2. Fold it

Make a diagonal fold in the middle of the paper (along the dashed lines, if you're using the glider template) so that the corners of your paper are offset and make two peaks. Take the folded edge and fold it over half an inch more. On the template, this fold is represented by the dotted line.

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Forming a ring

3. Form a ring

Bring the ends of the paper together to make a ring with the folded edge facing the inside of the ring. Tuck one end into the fold of the other to secure your ring wing. You can also use a small piece of tape to make sure the ring doesn't come apart. 

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Measuring, grasping and throwing the ring wing

4. Test and evaluate

Measure and record your glider's diameter, the distance across the circular opening.

Find the "V" between the two peaks formed by the corners of the paper. Grasp the glider at the bottom of the "V" with your pointer and index fingers inside the glider and your thumb on the outside the glider. Extend your arm straight behind you and swing it upward, lightly releasing the glider when your arm is beside your ear. Measure the distance your glider flies.

Repeat this step at least three times, recording the distance of each flight and calculating the average distance.

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Measuring a smaller ring wing

5. Redesign and try again

Create a second glider with a smaller or larger diameter. Fly it at least three times, and calculate the average linear distance it flies.

Graph your data on paper, or using spreadsheet software if you can. Based on your measurements, does it appear that ring diameter influences linear distance flown?

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6. Investigate other variables

Think about other elements of the design that could be modified, such as the weight or size of the paper or the size and number of folds. Change only one element at a time. Keep track of your changes in an engineering log. Quantify your changes by measuring the performance of your glider after you make changes to it.