Ever watched a superhero film where the protagonist had the power of superspeed and could travel miles in seconds? Well, with the arrival of NASA’s newest X-plane, flying at the speed of sound might not be limited to fiction anymore.
The science and other stuff to know
Back in 1947, NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), flew the Bell X-1 rocket plane at a rate faster than the speed of sound. Now, 75 years after the historic flight, NASA plans to do it again. Their newest X-plane model, the X-59, is on track to match and exceed the speed of sound, but quietly, a press release explains.
This is critical because the sonic boom produced when a plane exceeds the sound barrier was likely the most significant impediment to supersonic commercial flights becoming a reality. Concorde, the world’s first and last supersonic commercial passenger jet, landed for the final time nearly two decades ago, effectively putting an end to supersonic commercial flights as residential areas were not happy with tremendous booms that could shatter glass happening over their heads.
If we want supersonic flight to become a reality, the sonic boom needs to be overcome, and we may be right on track. NASA’s X-59 experimental aircraft plans to break the sound barrier in an entirely novel way: with a “sonic thump”.
Designed by Lockheed Martin, the QueSST (Quiet Supersonic Transport) X-59 experimental plane will take to the skies over the Mojave Desert in California. Residents in several neighborhoods it flies over will be able to respond to a survey about any noise they hear. Based on their response, new regulations might lift the ban on supersonic flight over land.
Despite having flown the X-1 rocket plane past Mach 1 — a measurement of how fast you’re flying relative to the speed of sound — 75 years ago, current airliners have not been able to go beyond that threshold again.
If the QueSST mission is successful, NASA says it could open up a new era in commercial air travel, one in which “airline passengers might hop on a supersonic jet at breakfast time in Los Angeles to make a lunchtime reservation in New York City”.
“We’ve kind of been stuck with our airliners at about Mach .8 for the past almost 50 years, so being able to get there — wherever there is — much faster is still kind of an unfulfilled dream,” said Peter Coen, NASA’s mission integration manager for QueSST, in a press release.
With the X-59 and its quiet supersonic technology, NASA hopes to make airlines able to offer faster-than-sound flights to everyone.
NASA and its partners began building the X-59 experimental plane in 2018, and it’s still in the works. It passed two crucial tests earlier this year and is now gearing up for a flight debut in 2023. If all things go to plan, commercial supersonic flights could be within reach before 2030.