NASA invests in construction of silent supersonic plane

Space agency NASA has commissioned aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin to design a silent supersonic aircraft. Initially, a small ‘X-Plane’ is designed, which is later to become a larger passenger plane.

Initially, it concerns an investment of 20 million dollars, which is approximately 18.4 million euros. NASA will make this amount available over the next 17 months to a team led by aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin. The team will use the money to make a preliminary design for a QueSST aircraft that uses ‘quiet supersonic technology’. This should ensure that the aircraft can break through the sound barrier without making a lot of noise. Instead of a sonic boom, the plane should produce a supersonic “heartbeat,” the space agency said.

The team’s assignment is to make a preliminary design, and to record specifications and documentation. These can then be used to make a prototype of a QueSST aircraft for a ‘low boom flight demonstration’. By then, NASA will launch a competition for the actual construction of that aircraft, so that aircraft manufacturers can submit a proposal in order to win the design contract.

It will be an aircraft about half the size of a passenger flight aircraft and ‘probably’ piloted by a pilot. With that wording, NASA seems to be leaving room for a test aircraft that flies autonomously. Designing and building the device will take years; the first test flights are not expected before 2020. It is not yet clear whether and when supersonic passenger flights will actually be operated again in the future.

Between 1976 and 2003, Air France and British Airways operated supersonic passenger flights on Concorde. Only twenty units of the aircraft were made, including the six prototypes that were not suitable for commercial flights. The Concorde reached a maximum speed of Mach 2.04, or 2179 km/h. The flight from London to New York could therefore be made in about 3.5 hours.

In 2003, the airlines stopped the Concorde flights. Passenger numbers had declined after the crash in 2000, in which one plane caught fire shortly after takeoff, killing all on board. Maintenance of the aircraft had also become expensive and there was much commentary on the noise pollution caused by the supersonic flights. That problem should in any case be solved with the new design.

Impression of a potentially silent supersonic test aircraft by Lockheed Martin