Aligned with its mission to facilitate commercial supersonic travel, NASA, the American space agency, introduced a new, noise-reduced supersonic aircraft last Friday. This one-of-a-kind research airplane is expected to revolutionize air travel by letting planes fly faster than the speed of sound without causing loud, startling sonic booms that disturb people on the ground.
The X-59 was rolled out in a joint event with Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale, California. Its predicted top speed is 1.4 times the speed of sound or 1,488 kilometers per hour, about the same as a typical transatlantic flight from New York to London.
However, the X-59 is designed to travel at those speeds while creating a much quieter sonic boom than what was experienced during Concorde’s heyday in 1976. Engineers built the aircraft to break up shock waves with a shaped underside and other advanced technology.
It’s also almost twice as long as Concorde was, and it has no windshield since more than a third of the 99.7-foot (30 m) plane’s length is a tapered nose section that will disrupt shock waves before they reach the ground. This unique configuration is supposed to allow the X-59 to travel at Mach 1.4 without producing a sonic boom.
But sonic booms aren’t the only issue with supersonic flights, which is why this experimental aircraft will conduct several flight tests at Skunk Works before it’s transferred to NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, for its first test flight. Once that happens, the X-59 will fly over select residential areas and gather data on how people react to the quieter sonic “thumps” it creates. That information will be shared with regulators, who may consider writing new rules to lift the ban on faster-than-sound flights over land.
The X-59 is at the center of NASA’s Quest mission, which aims to give the agency data that might convince officials to reconsider the rules against commercial supersonic flights over land in the US and elsewhere. Such flights have been banned for over 50 years because they disturb communities with their loud, startling sonic booms.
The X-59 is set to take off for the first time later this year, followed by its first quiet supersonic flight. Once it gathers enough data, NASA will share it with regulators who might consider devising new sound-based rules that lift the current ban on supersonic air travel over land. The X-59 isn’t the only supersonic jet under development, but it is one of the most advanced. Other projects include a British company’s attempt to build a jet that can fly at seven times the speed of sound, and Boeing’s Starliner project that’s working on an electric-powered supersonic passenger aircraft. Both of these jets are expected to be available by 2025.