NASA starts high-speed tests with X-plane in wind tunnel

Space agency NASA and aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin have begun high-speed testing of an X-plane in a wind tunnel. According to NASA, this is another step closer to introducing passenger planes that fly at supersonic speeds.

The model tested is a scale model sized nine percent the normal size of Lockheed Martin’s X aircraft design. In the supersonic wind tunnel, the model will be exposed to wind speeds from 367 km/h to almost 2000 km/h over the next eight weeks. This is used to test the aerodynamics and propulsion of the scale model, among other things. It will also be examined how the design performs immediately after take-off up to the flight phase in which supersonic flying is performed at cruising speed. The wind tunnel tests and subsequent analyzes will continue until sometime in mid-2017, NASA has announced.

This design concerns the so-called ‘quiet supersonic technology’, which should ultimately lead to supersonic aircraft that are able to fly over land with relatively little noise. Recent research has shown that when applying certain shapes in the design, a supersonic aircraft hardly generates shock waves that create noise for people on the ground. The sound barrier is at sea level at a speed of 1200 km/h; normally, an aircraft breaking through this barrier generates shock waves that are experienced as a very loud bang for people on the ground.

In early 2016, NASA commissioned Lockheed Martin to create the small design for a silent supersonic aircraft. Initially, it concerns an investment of 20 million dollars, which is approximately 18.4 million euros.

The quiet supersonic technology design is one of a series of X aircraft belonging to NASA’s New Aviation Horizons initiative. This initiative seeks to reduce aircraft fuel consumption, emissions and noise through aircraft innovation. With these innovative aircraft, the conventional aircraft construction of a fuselage and wings is often abandoned.

A first ‘low boom’ flight demonstration is expected around 2020. By then, NASA will launch a competition for the actual construction of the aircraft, so that aircraft manufacturers can submit a proposal in order to win the design contract.

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