NASA Explores the Possibility of a Mach 4 Passenger Jet
The US space agency wants to reopen the door to supersonic passenger travel, which vanished when Concorde retired two decades ago. It’s working with aircraft manufacturer Lockheed to reduce the ear-splitting sonic boom of breaking through the sound barrier.
The X-59 QueSST plane is expected to fly by 2027 and send data to regulators “to consider new sound-based rules for quiet supersonic flight over land.” A Boeing team and a Northrop Grumman team are competing for the contract.
The Future of Air Travel
When it comes to air travel, there aren’t many things that can compete with the idea of hopping on a plane and flying across the world in just four hours. However, a trip of this length comes with its own share of challenges. Airplane noise, cramped quarters, and long flights can all lead to discomfort, stress, and even anxiety.
The newest manufactured aircraft are incorporating features that are designed to help passengers relax and sleep while in flight. These new jets have mood lighting and noise-canceling features that are intended to reduce the stress associated with flying.
The future of air travel may also be shaped by the desire for sustainable, environmentally friendly, high-speed travel options. The recent endeavors of a handful of private companies—including Denver-based Boom Technology (trademarked as Boom Supersonic) and London-based Exosonic—may be one way to realize this vision.
But the companies involved in these efforts must prove that they can produce a passenger jet that is affordable and quiet enough to meet consumer demand, and comply with existing environmental and aviation regulations.
Developed by the Skunk Works at Lockheed Martin, the X-59 is designed to fly at speeds that could make it possible to transport passengers from London to New York in four hours. The real challenge, though, is reducing the loudness of the sonic boom created when the aircraft crosses the sound barrier. Typically, such a boom sounds something like a car door slamming, NASA says.
The X-59 is shaped to reduce that shock wave, lowering the loudness of the sonic boom to about 75 decibels.
That’s still very loud, but significantly less than the 105 decibels produced by Concorde. The X-59’s unique shape also enables it to produce that low noise level while flying at supersonic speeds, an important step toward a lift of the current ban on commercial supersonic flights over land.
A crucial test will begin in 2024, when the X-59 will be flown over half a dozen residential communities to generate community response data on whether such a quiet sonic boom is acceptable.
Although a passenger jet version of the X-59 won’t be possible, the US space agency and Lockheed Martin are collaborating to develop technology that could lead to an aircraft capable of flying faster than the Concorde—which was retired in 2003.
The Quesst project—which stands for Quiet Supersonic Technology—will use the X-59 to collect data about whether a plane’s noise can be kept at acceptable levels to allow it to fly over land, breaking the current rule that bans commercial supersonic flights on routes that cross the United States and other countries.
Two teams are competing in the Quesst project. One is led by Boeing and includes partners such as Exosonic, GE Aerospace, Georgia Tech Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory, and Rolls-Royce North American Technologies;
The other is led by Northrop Grumman and includes partners such as Aerion (which is working on a 12-passenger business jet called the AS2).
The Spaceship Company, and Boom Supersonic.
In 2023, the X-59 will fly in formation with an F-15 fighter jet to capture images of the shockwaves produced during its flight, using a process known as schlieren photography.
A century after Chuck Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier, NASA is poised to reopen the door to commercial supersonic jet travel.
The agency’s Quesst mission, which will fly an experimental aircraft called the X-59, seeks to minimize the loud, disruptive sonic boom produced when a plane breaks the sound barrier.
NASA’s studies found that potential passenger markets exist on about 50 established routes that connect cities. These include transoceanic routes like the North Atlantic and Pacific.
To test the X-59, which has been given the official designation of “experimental uncrewed aircraft,” NASA will have it fly over communities near airports and other sites.
Then, it will engage with residents to see how they respond to the noise and whether they think a 75-decibel boom is acceptable.
This will help NASA convince international aviation regulators to change the rules for overland supersonic flight.
Unlike conventional airliners, the X-59 will use bursts of air rather than traditional hinged flaps and moving flight surfaces on the exterior of its wings and tail to control the plane’s maneuvers.