NASA takes one step closer towards a super quiet, supersonic X-plane

28 Jun 2017

Illustration of NASA’s futuristic QueSST design for a super-light, supersonic aircraft. Image: NASA/Lockheed Martin

NASA has just taken another step towards building the latest experimental aircraft that would not only be supersonic, but super quiet, too.

It has been 14 years since the last supersonic Concorde jetliner took to the air, since costs spiralled upwards and its safety record proved to be anything but stellar.

Despite cutting the time it would take to fly from London to New York in half, the powerful sonic boom created by the aircraft made it unfeasible in the long term, restricting it to use over large bodies of water.

Future Human

However, NASA’s engineers have been working on a new concept for more than a year now – one that would bring all the benefits of a supersonic jet, but also be significantly quieter than the Concorde.

So far, the Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) design has remained in the initial stages, with only a few concept images drawn up.

Now though, NASA has revealed that its low-boom flight demonstration (LBFD) experimental aeroplane – otherwise known as the X-plane – has been ruled by designers and engineers as a real contender.

First flight in 2021

In a statement, NASA said it and Lockheed Martin established that the QueSST model is capable of fulfilling the LBFD aircraft’s mission objectives, which are to fly at supersonic speeds, but create a soft ‘thump’ instead of the disruptive sonic boom associated with supersonic flight today.

Over the next few months, NASA will work with Lockheed to finalise the QueSST preliminary design, following on from a test in May of a small-scale model in the agency’s supersonic wind tunnel.

“Managing a project like this is all about moving from one milestone to the next,” said David Richwine, manager for the preliminary design effort under NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology Project.

“Our strong partnership with Lockheed Martin helped get us to this point. We’re now one step closer to building an actual X-plane.”

NASA will start the process of soliciting proposals later this year and awarding a contract early next year to build the piloted, single-engine aircraft, with the first full-scale test occurring as early as 2021.

Last March, NASA said that it would be using the LBFD platform to test the latest generation of biofuels, which could drastically cut jet engine pollution by as much as 70pc.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic