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Monday, July 09, 2018, 13:39
Supersonic: The Return
By Ben Berg
Monday, July 09, 2018, 13:39 By Ben Berg

NASA’s new supersonic X-plane goes into production through Lockheed Martin

Up in the sky – it’s NASA’s Low-Boom Flight Demonstration aircraft

“I feel the need… the need for speed!” Tom Cruise famously exclaimed in the 1986 film Top Gun. While he was talking about jet fighter aircraft from the surrounds of a military academy, the reality for commercial travellers on global flight paths is that despite upgrades in the comfort and fuel efficiency of aeroplanes over the last two decades, they haven’t gotten any faster. As a result, speed has become the new commercial gain line after so long in stasis. 

Artist’s concept of the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator parked outside Lockheed Martin Aeronautics’ Skunk Works hangar in Palmdale, California

The only way to get there remains supersonic flight, despite Concorde going out of service in 2003. NASA has started production of a plane that will fly faster than the speed of sound, but unlike Concorde, the sound of the sonic boom will be “nearly silent”. 

Schlieren image of shock waves created by a T-38C in supersonic flight, captured using the sun’s edge as a light source and then processed using NASA-developed code

If all goes to plan, the piloted X-plane will be built and delivered to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center by the end of 2021, with the aim of gaining approval for commercial use by 2025. The reduced boom will make overland flights viable – something Concorde could never achieve, which meant mostly flying transatlantic routes. Concorde flew New York to London in three-and-a-half hours for a flight that ordinarily takes around seven hours. 

“It’s super-exciting to be back designing and flying X-planes at this scale,” says Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for aeronautics research at NASA. “Our long tradition of solving the technical barriers of supersonic flight to benefit everyone continues.” 

NASA has given Lockheed Martin Aeronautics a contract for nearly US$250 million to build the single-pilot plane, expected to reach speeds of 940 miles per hour at a cruising altitude of 55,000 feet, compared to around 35,000 feet for conventional airliners. It will create a sound about as loud as a car door closing instead of a sonic boom. 

Beginning in mid-2022, NASA is set to fly the X-plane over select US cities and collect information about community responses to the flights. This data will be provided to US and international regulators for their use in considering new sound-based rules regarding overland supersonic flight, which could enable new commercial cargo and passenger markets in faster-than-sound air travel. The world is changing – and quickly.

Images: NASA/Lockheed Martin (demonstration aircraft); Lockheed Martin (artist’s concept); NASA Photo (schlieren image of shock waves)

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