NASA is going to develop a supersonic plane that's designed to fly faster than a typical aircraft — in fact, it will travel faster than the speed of sound without producing loud sonic booms usually found on commercial airplanes.
The space agency has hired airplane manufacturer Lockheed Martin, awarding it a $247.5 million contract to build the aircraft as part of its X-Plane program. Flying faster than sound isn't the hard part of NASA's new experiment. It's doing so without the ear-shattering sonic boom that poses the biggest challenge.
NASA's goal is to produce a successor to the famous supersonic airplane Concorde, which began flying in 1976. The plane produced such a loud sound that airplane regulators banned it from flight at supersonic speeds over the United States and Europe. The plane was later relegated to transatlantic routes and eventually retired in 2003 after financial struggles. A supersonic plane that can be much quieter than the Concorde would probably be more successful.
"This X-plane is a critical step closer to that exciting future," said Jaiwon Shin of NASA's aeronautics research unit. "People enjoying affordable, quiet, supersonic flights in the future will say April 3rd, 2018 is the day it all began."
Low Boom Flight Demonstrator
The task now for Lockheed Martin is to develop a manned Low Boom Flight Demonstrator, a prototype that will borrow some design elements from the Concorde. In the end, it might look similar to a missle outfitted with small wings, which is crucial to keep pressure waves down during supersonic flight.
However, Lockheed Martin stressed that the plane it's going to build won't be a prototype for a new commercial airplane, nor a reincarnation of old supersonic jets. Rather, as spokesperson Dave Richardson said:
"This is a purpose-built experimental research craft. This aircraft was designed from a clean sheet."
Once built, NASA plans to use that plane to collect data about low-boom aircraft design, which the space agency hopes will solve the single greatest challenge of supersonic flight — shock waves.
NASA also plans to run ground-based surveys to see how people would react to what the space agency calls as "sonic thumps," or sounds that the supersonic jet will produce that won't be obnoxiously loud as on the Concorde. Lockheed says the shock waves should sound more like a car door closing to people on the ground than the Concorde's canon-like sound.
Eventually, NASA hopes to bring that data to the Federal Aviation Administration in an attempt to reconsider rules on planes breaking the speed of sound when flying over land.
"It's not about making a new airplane for airplanes' sake, although I love airplanes," said Richardson. "It's about the data that will be collected."