NASA’s New X-Plane Program to Bring Quiet Supersonic Flight

NASA has plans to develop new supersonic passenger aircraft that are not only quieter, but also greener and less expensive to operate. If NASA’s 2017 budget is approved, the agency will re-start their X-Plane program, the same program which was responsible for the first supersonic flight almost 70 years ago. And if all goes according to plan, the first test-model could be flying as soon as 2020.

The problem with supersonic flight—and the reason it’s banned— is the uber-loud boom that it creates. When an aircraft passes the speed of sound, a shockwave is created in the air it passes through. This shockwave can travel up to 40 kilometres (25 miles), and can even break windows. NASA thinks new aircraft designs can prevent this, and it starts with abandoning the ‘tube and wings’ model that current passenger aircraft design adheres to. It’s hoped that new designs will avoid the sonic booms that cause so much disturbance, and instead produce more of a soft thump, or supersonic ‘heartbeat.’

Another illustration of what a quiet supersonic aircraft might look like. Image: NASA/Boeing.

The image above shows what a hybrid wing-body aircraft might look like. Rather than a tube with wings attached, this design uses a unified body and wings built together. It’s powered by turbofan engines, and has vertical fins on the rear to direct sound up and away from the ground. (Just don’t ask for a window seat.)

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics has been chosen to complete a preliminary design for Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST.) They will have about 17 months to produce a design, which will then lead to a more detailed designing, building, and testing of a new QueSST jet, about half the size of a production aircraft. This aircraft will then have to undergo analytical testing and wind-tunnel validation.

After the design and build of QueSST will come the Low Boom Flight Demonstration (LBFD) phase. During the LBFD phase, NASA will seek community input on the aircraft’s performance and noise factor.

But noise reduction is not the only goal of NASA’s new X-Plane program. NASA administrator Charles Bolden acknowledged this when he said, “NASA is working hard to make flight greener, safer and quieter—all while developing aircraft that travel faster, and building an aviation system that operates more efficiently.” 

NASA has been working in recent years to reduce aircraft fuel consumption by 15%, and engine nitrogen oxide emissions by 75%. These goals are part of their Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project, which began in 2009. Other goals of ERA include reducing aircraft drag by 8% and aircraft weight by 10%. These goals dovetail nicely with their revamped X-Plane initiative.

It’s hard to bet against NASA. They’re one of the most effective organizations on Earth, and when they set goals, they tend to meet them. If their X-Plane program can achieve its goals, it will be a win for aircraft design, for paying customers, and for the environment.

For a look at the history of the X-Plane project, look here.

Evan Gough

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