Shhh, NASA Reveals its New Quiet Supersonic Aircraft

NASA’s X-59 quiet supersonic research aircraft sits on the apron outside Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works facility at dawn in Palmdale, California. The X-59 is the centerpiece of NASA’s Quesst mission, which seeks to address one of the primary challenges to supersonic flight over land by making sonic booms quieter. Lockheed Martin Skunk Works

The term space plane conjurs up all sorts of images and NASA, with their new X-59 (even the name sounds mysterious) they have definitely not dissapointed. Their new quiet supersonic aircraft has been designed to minimise the sonic boom it creates when it crosses the speed of sound. It will fly at 1.4 times the speed of sound and is set for its maiden flight later this year. 

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What is a Flying Wing?

X-47B conducting a midair refueling run in the Atlantic Test Ranges. Credit: US Navy

The field of aviation has produced some interesting designs over the course of its century-long history. In addition to monoplanes, jet-aircraft, rocket-propelled planes, and high-altitude interceptors and spy craft, there is also the variety of airplanes that do away with such things as tails, sections and fuselages. These are what is known as Flying Wings, a type of fixed-wing aircraft that consists of a single wing.

While this concept has been investigated for almost as long as flying machines have existed, it is only within the past few decades that its true potential has been realized. And when it comes to the future of aerospace, it is one concept that is expected to see a great deal more in the way of research and development.


By definition, a flying wing is an aircraft which has no definite fuselage, with most of the crew, payload and equipment being housed inside the main wing structure. From the top, a flying wing looks like a chevron, with the wings constituting its outer edges and the front middle serving as the cockpit or pilot’s seat. They come in many varieties, ranging from the jet fighter/bomber to hand gliders and sailplanes.

A clean flying wing is theoretically the most aerodynamically efficient (lowest drag) design configuration for a fixed wing aircraft. It also offers high structural efficiency for a given wing depth, leading to light weight and high fuel efficiency.

A Junkers G 38, in service with Lufthansa. Credit: SDASM Archives
A Junkers G 38, in service with Lufthansa. Credit: SDASM Archives

History of Development:

Tailless craft have been around since the time of the Wright Brothers. But it was not until after World War I, thanks to extensive wartime developments with monoplanes, that a craft with no true fuselage became feasible. An early enthusiast was Hugo Junkers who patented the idea for a wing-only air transport in 1910.

Unfortunately, restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles on German aviation meant that his vision wasn’t realized until 1931 with the Junker’s G38. This design, though revolutionary, still required a short fuselage and a tail section in order to be aerodynamically possible.

A restored Horten Ho 229 at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Credits: Cynrik de Decker
A restored Horten Ho 229 at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Credits: Cynrik de Decker

Flying wing designs were experimented with extensively in the 30’s and 40’s, especially in the US and Germany. In France, Britain and the US, many designs were produced, though most were gliders. However, there were exceptions, like the Northrop N1M, a prototype all-wing plane and the far more impressive Horten Ho 229, the first jet-powered flying wing that served as a fighter/bomber for the German air force in WWII.

This aircraft was part of a long series of experimental aircraft produced by Nazi Germany, and was also the first craft to incorporate technology that made it harder to detect on radar – aka. Stealth technology. However, whether this was intentional or an unintended consequence of its design remains the subject of speculation.

After WWII, this plane inspired several generations of experimental aircraft. The most notable of these are the YB-49 long-range bomber, the A-12 Avenger II, the B-2 Stealth Bomber (otherwise known as the Spirit), and a host of delta-winged aircraft, such as Canada’s own Avro-105, also known as the Avro Arrow.

Recent Developments:

More recent examples of aircraft that incorporate the flying wing design include the X-47B, a demonstration unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) currently in development by Northrop Grumman. Designed for carrier-based operations, the X-47B is a result of collaboration between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) program.

The X-47B first flew in 2011, and as of 2015, its two active demonstrators successfully performed a series of airstrip and carrier-based landings. Eventually, Northrop Grumman hopes to develop the prototype X-47B into a battlefield-ready aircraft known the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system, which is expected to enter service in the 2020s.

Another take on the concept comes in the form of the bidirectional flying wing. This type of design consists of a long-span, low speed wing and a short-span, high speed wing joined in a single airframe in the shape of an uneven cross. The proposed craft would take off and land with the low-speed wing across the airflow, then rotate a quarter-turn so that the high-speed wing faces the airflow for supersonic travel.

The design is claimed to feature low wave drag, high subsonic efficiency and little or no sonic boom. The low-speed wings have likely a thick, rounded airfoil able to contain the payload and a wide span for high efficiency, while the high-speed wing would have a thin, sharp-edged airfoil and a shorter span for low drag at supersonic speed.

In 2012, NASA announced that it was in the process of funding the development of such a concept, known as the Supersonic Bi-Directional Flying Wing (SBiDir-FW). This came in the form of the Office of the Chief Technologist awarding a grant of $100,000 to a research group at the University of Miami (led by Professor Gecheng Zha) who were already working on such a plane.

Since the Wright Brothers first took to the air in a plane made of canvas and wood over a century ago, aeronautical engineers have thought long and hard about how we can improve upon the science of flight. Every once in awhile, there are those who will attempt to “reinvent the wheel”, throwing out the old paradigm and producing something truly revolutionary.

We have written many articles about the Flying Wing for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the testing of the prototype blended wing aircraft, and here are some jet pictures.

If you’d like more information on NASA’s aircraft programs, check out NASA’s Dryden photo collection, and here’s a link to various NASA research aircraft.

We’ve also recorded many related episodes of Astronomy Cast. Listen here, Episode 100: Rockets.