Can NASA's X-plane resurrect supersonic passenger air travel?

For those who still hanker after the supersonic air travel offered by Concorde, some exciting news from NASA.T...

Posted: Apr 4, 2018 7:29 PM
Updated: Apr 4, 2018 7:29 PM

For those who still hanker after the supersonic air travel offered by Concorde, some exciting news from NASA.

The US space agency has announced it's going ahead with plans to develop an aircraft that can break the sound barrier -- but quietly.

Which means that unlike it's sonic boom-producing predecessors, including Concorde, it could operate commercial routes over land.

NASA has awarded Lockheed Martin a $247.5 million contract to build the supersonic aircraft.

It wants the aerospace company to refine, build and test the experimental aircraft -- known as the X-plane or "Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator" -- and deliver it to NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center by the end of 2021.

Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator

NASA hopes the piloted plane, designed to produce sonic booms barely audible from the ground, will provide crucial data that could benefit commercial supersonic passenger air travel.

Supersonic flight over land is currently restricted due to noise concerns, one of several factors that reduced Concorde's appeal to commercial airlines.

The noise issue has dogged aeronautical innovators looking to create a successor to the Anglo-French airplane since it retired in 2003.

"It is super exciting to be back designing and flying X-planes at this scale," says Jaiwon Shin, NASA's associate administrator for aeronautics.

"Our long tradition of solving the technical barriers of supersonic flight to benefit everyone continues."

The proposed plane, based on a preliminary design developed by Lockheed Martin, will be 29 meters long with a wingspan of 9 meters and a fully-fueled take-off weight of 15,000 kilograms.

Reducing sonic booms

The secret to its low noise?

According to NASA, the X-plane's uniquely-shaped structure will reduce the intensity of the sonic booms it creates.

"There are so many people at NASA who have put in their very best efforts to get us to this point," adds Shin.

"Thanks to their work so far and the work to come, we will be able to use this X-plane to generate the scientifically collected community response data critical to changing the current rules to transforming aviation."

Of course, NASA isn't alone in its quest to revive supersonic air travel.

Japan Airlines recently invested $10 million into Boom Technologies, a Denver-based start-up that also hopes to revive supersonic air travel in the next decade.

Meanwhile Spike Aerospace is hoping to test its S-512 Supersonic Jet by the close of this year.

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