New NASA X-plane will be a quieter Supersonic Jet

NASA's new series of bullet-shaped “X-planes” are the first step towards trying to resurrect the dream of supersonic air travel. NASA has awarded Lockheed Martin $20 million contract to develop a preliminary design for a quiet demonstration passenger aircraft designed to fly faster than the speed of sound. Known as "low boom" flight demonstration aircraft, NASA hopes these quieter "X-planes" will pave the way for the reintroduction of commercial supersonic flights.

The company has been on a years-long mission to replace the Concorde, the expensive supersonic plane, which was decommissioned in 2003 over concerns that it was uneconomical, and just too loud. The new NASA X-plane itself is a concept for the first plane using what company calls Quiet Supersonic Technology (or QueSST). New supersonic passenger aircraft would be not only quieter, but also greener and less expensive to operate.

NASA New X-plane Will Be a Quieter Supersonic Jet

The design for Lockheed's test plane will be about half the size of a commercial plane and will "likely" be piloted, according to NASA, which leaves some room for autonomy. NASA began soliciting concepts for supersonic test aircraft last year, with a specific focus on planes that could break the sound barrier without creating massive sonic booms. When an aircraft passes the speed of sound, a shockwave is created in the air it passes through. This shockwave can travel up to 40 kilometres (25 miles), and can even break windows. NASA thinks new aircraft designs can prevent this, and it starts with abandoning the ‘tube and wings’ model that current passenger aircraft design adheres to. It’s hoped that new NASA X-plane designs will avoid the sonic booms that cause so much disturbance, and instead produce more of a soft thump, or supersonic ‘heartbeat.’


The $20 million awarded to Lockheed Martin will fund preliminary design work over the next 17 months. During that time, the contract requires the company to develop a design and specifications for the new NASA X-plane, which will be validated by wind tunnel tests and computer simulations. After that, another contract competition will be held to build the aircraft. NASA aims to begin test flights around 2020 as long as funding is continued.

Supersonic commercial passenger airline travel ended when the British Airways and Air France Concordes stopped flying in 2003. The planes had struggled to make profits in the wake of a crash in Paris in 2000 that killed 113 people. The planes used a lot of fuel, required special parts and were high maintenance. The noise from the Concordes created an entire set of restrictions anywhere it flew, except over the ocean.

NASA New X-plane Will Be a Quieter Supersonic Jet