Supersonic flight could be on the horizon but without the boom

NASA’s X-59 Quiet Supersonic Transport research aircraft has received approval for final assembly. Senior management at NASA gave the go ahead following a meeting on 12 December. If everything goes to plan, the aircraft will see its first flight in 2021.
The X-59 QueSST is designed with the sole purpose of being as quiet as possible in supersonic flight. Photo: Konrad Małyska via Wikimedia Commons

Supersonic flight was a major hurdle in aviation history. The sound barrier was first beaten by the Bell X-1 way back in 1946.

Since then, supersonic flight has become a prerequisite for all fighter jets. In the 1970s, Concorde brought supersonic flight to commercial passenger aviation, allowing paying customers to fly at over twice the speed of sound.

But one of the major problems with supersonic flight, beside the cost, is how deafeningly loud it is.

Any object traveling past the speed of sound will emit what is known as a sonic boom. This is a massive shockwave which is hits bystanders as a loud clap or explosion sound.

Generally, the larger the object, the louder the sonic boom. As a result, large aircraft traveling faster than the speed of sound will emit a very loud sonic boom which can be powerful enough to damage objects on the ground.

NASA’s quiet supersonic flight project

Complaints over sonic booms have caused significant disruption to both military and commercial supersonic flight projects.

As a result, NASA has been running a series of research projects to explore the potential of quiet supersonic flight.

Sonic boom shockwaves
Supersonic flight produces powerful shockwaves. Photo: NASA

Under the main project, called the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator Project, NASA awarded a $247.5 million contract to Lockheed Martin to produce an experimental supersonic aircraft.

NASA says that it hopes the project will “pave the way for commercial supersonic flight over land.”

Now, it appears Lockheed Martin has been given the go ahead to begin final assembly of its experimental aircraft.

The Lockheed Martin X-59 QueSST

Lockheed Martin began work on the experimental quiet supersonic aircraft back in 2016. Since then it has conducted multiple tests to ensure its concept is ready to perform as expected under real-world conditions.

On 12 December NASA approved the Key Decision Point-D stage of the project, allowing Lockheed Martin to progress towards assembly of the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft.

The X-59 QueSST's cockpit
The X-59 QueSST’s nose is so long that its pilot will have to navigate using a forward-facing 4K camera. Photo: NASA

Discussing the project, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics, Bob Pearce, said:

“With the completion of KDP-D we’ve shown the project is on schedule, it’s well planned and on track. We have everything in place to continue this historic research mission for the nation’s air-traveling public.”

The X-59 QueSST’s radical design centres on the need to reduce its sonic boom as much as possible.

The thin, needle-like fuselage and canards reduce shockwaves as it travels through the air. But this design inhibits visibility out of the front of the cockpit so much that the pilot will have to rely on a forward-facing 4K camera to fly the aircraft.

NASA says that the X-59 QueSST will be around 1/1000 as loud as current supersonic aircraft and its sonic boom will be nothing more than a “gentle thump” at ground level.

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