Now, leaner, greener and quieter airplanes are not too far from reality.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has awarded a $16.5 million contract to Boeing, MIT and Northrop Grumman for additional research that would make airplanes greener and quieter for future generations.

The award will be divided between four industry and academic teams for additional research into ideas for aircraft that could enter service between 2030 and 2035.

NASA refers to this time period as N+3, representing technology three generations more advanced than what is in service today. Under the new contracts, the teams will develop concepts and models that can be tested in computer simulations, laboratories and wind tunnels. The work is funded by NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington.

The agency's Fundamental Aeronautics Program is focused on developing technology that will enable aircraft to meet national goals for reduced fuel consumption, emissions and noise. The program's Subsonic Fixed Wing Project oversees the work at the agency's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and Langley Research Center in Virginia.

Defense contractor Boeing will develop truss-based wing aircraft designs and hybrid electric engine technology and collect higher fidelity data on its concepts under an $8.8 million contract for a period of three years.

Boeing will design, construct and test wind tunnel mockups and computer models of the airplane and also will study lightweight materials and engine concepts for even more futuristic planes that could fly between 2040 and 2045. The contract is named as Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research, or SUGAR.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been awarded a 3-year $4.6 million contract to continue its work on its double bubble airplane design. Its concept is a dual fuselage, two partial cylinders placed side by side, that would create a wider structure than the traditional tube-and-wing airliner.

MIT will develop the technologies identified during the first study and build a model for testing. MIT also will explore the challenges of high-efficiency, small-core engine technology - the idea that it is not necessary to increase an engine's size to increase efficiency in delivering power.

In addition, Cessna Aircraft Co. has got a $1.9 million contract for 27 months to focus on airplane structure, particularly the aircraft outer covering. Engineers are trying to develop what some call a magic skin that can protect planes against lightning, electromagnetic interference, extreme temperatures and object impacts. The skin would heal itself if punctured or torn and help insulate the cabin from noise

Finally, Northrop Grumman Systems Inc. will test models of one of the most crucial part of an aircraft, the leading edge of the wing under a $1.2 million, 14-month contract. If engineers can design a smooth edge without the current standard slats, airplanes would be quieter and consume less fuel at cruise altitudes because of the smoother flow of air over the wings.