NASA is dedicating $20 million to build a supersonic jet that could launch a renaissance in air travel.
NASA and contractor Lockheed Martin are developing a design for a demonstration aircraft, which could eventually allow the “flying public to enjoy supersonic flight,” NASA‘s head of aeronautics, Jaiwon Shin, told USA Today.
“Just imagine you (can) go anywhere in the world in 6 hours.”
Traveling faster than the speed of sound is possible, but it’s likely a long way off for commercial flights. The prototype supersonic jet would only be 90 feet long and fit just one passenger. The next step would be to build a jet that could carry 100 people.
The NASA-funded design is estimated to be finished early next year, and a test vehicle ready for takeoff in fall, 2019. NASA hopes to start flights in 2020.
The new supersonic jet is supposed to solve a problem many people had with the last one — the now-defunct Concorde, operated by British Airways and Air France.
According to CNN, the supersonic Concorde flew its last in 2003 after a crash in Paris three years earlier that killed 113 people. The planes used up lots of fuel, needed special parts, and required a lot of maintenance. And they were very loud, creating obnoxious sonic booms wherever they flew.
NASA’s new supersonic aircraft will be much “greener, safer, and quieter, all while developing aircraft that travel faster, and building an aviation system that operates more efficiently,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
The new jet would fly 1,100 mph; the Concorde topped out at speeds of 1,300 mph. Commercial airliners fly at a pokey 600 mph. According to NASA, the new plane will generate only 75 decibels while cruising; the Concorde generated 105.
NASA’s Bolden described the sound as just a “rumble.”
The supersonic plane will use Quiet Supersonic Technology, or QueSST, to create a “heartbeat” rather than a boom, also described as more like a soft thump. Sonic booms are created by shock waves as the planes slice through the air. These waves are caused by pressure changes, and that causes the booming sound. They can be heard for miles.
Designers are working on a “low boom” design, which could include a sleek fuselage, needle nose, or delta-shaped wings. The supersonic QueSST, as it looks now, has an odd design, USA Today noted: “a long, skinny nose, oddly angled wings and a tail fin folded into what looks like an origami airplane.”
The supersonic QueSST would be designed so that the plane would prevent the small shock waves from combining to create the sonic boom.
To create this “low boom” technology, NASA is working with engineers from Lockheed’s Skunk Works aviation facility, where the U.S. Air Force SR-71 Blackbird surveillance plane and the F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack aircraft were created.
This is the first of many “X-planes” that are part of NASA’s New Aviation Horizons initiative. After the $20 million is spent, construction and flight tests will cost another $280 million.
Right now, supersonic flights are banned over the U.S. because the first generation of these jets proved to be so noisy, but if NASA’s plan and design, with its “low boom” technology, actually works, supersonic passenger flight could be reinvigorated worldwide, and ferry people across the world in a fraction of the time it takes to travel today.
“It’s been almost 70 years since Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 as part of our predecessor agency’s high speed research,” NASA’s Bolden said. “Now we’re continuing that supersonic X-plane legacy with this preliminary design award for a quieter supersonic jet with an aim toward passenger flight.”
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