NASA has recently announced plans to design an innovative passenger jet that travels a lot faster than the speed of sound. What sets it apart, however, is that it can operate without the incredibly noisy sonic boom associated with supersonic travel. According to the developers, only a soft thump, which they are referring to as “supersonic heartbeat”, will indicate that the aircraft has broken the so-called sound barrier.
The jet, as NASA points out, is being developed to take the place of the now-retired Concorde, which functioned at twice the speed of sound (Mach 2.04), taking passengers from London to New York in less than 3.5 hours. Supersonic travel has long been a reality, with jets like Tupolev Tu-144 and Concorde operating as commercial aircraft until their retirement in 1978 and 2003 respectively. They were taken out of service primarily due to the exceptionally loud sonic boom that occurs every time an object attains speeds higher than the velocity of sound.
Such sound explosions can generally travel several thousand meters, often rattling windows, houses and even cars along the way. Once completely constructed, NASA’s jet would be able to carry passengers at supersonic speeds, without the terrible clangor. For the research, the space agency has joined hands with Lockheed Martin to develop the preliminary design of the aircraft, also known as Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST). Speaking about the project, Charles Bolden of NASA said:
It’s worth noting that it’s been almost 70 years since Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 as part of our predecessor agency’s high speed research. Now we’re continuing that supersonic X-plane legacy with this preliminary design award for a quieter supersonic jet with an aim toward passenger flight.
The research, according to the team, is part of NASA’s ongoing ‘X-planes’ project. In the coming 17 months, scientists and engineers at Lockheed Martin will be responsible for creating the jet’s preliminary design as well as drawing up the baseline aircraft requirements. Following that, the design will be put to initial testing, including wind tunnel validation. If everything goes according to plan, a scaled-down prototype of the supersonic aircraft will undergo testing by 2020. Jaiwon Shin, of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission, said:
Developing, building and flight testing a quiet supersonic X-plane is the next logical step in our path to enabling the industry’s decision to open supersonic travel for the flying public.
As the developers point out, testing will involve determining “acceptable sound levels”, in an attempt to eliminate inconvenient sonic booms usually associated with supersonic air travel.