Nasa is to begin supersonic tests this month for its next-generation passenger airliner, dubbed the ‘Son of Concorde’ by aviation fans.
The plane, officially known as the X-59 Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST), will fire off ‘quiet’ sonic booms when it is launched for test flights.
The first flight of the X-59, which could one day fly from London to New York in just three hours without giving off a loud sonic boom, is scheduled for 2021.
The craft could become the first commercial supersonic aircraft to carry passengers since iconic Anglo-French jet Concorde was decommissioned 15 years ago.
Ahead of this the space agency will use a modified combat jet to check the ‘acoustic signature’ of the engines to be used in the airliner, by sending it into a series of dives.
It has recruited 500 people on the ground to then answer surveys about the noise generated by the the F/A-18 Hornet, to ensure the flight is quiet as it flies over Texas.
Nasa has announced a series of new tests for its 1,100mph (1,770kph) supersonic commercial airliner tipped to be the follow-up to the legendary Concorde. The plane (artist’s impression) aims to cut out the noise associated with supersonic travel
Before the aircraft takes to the skies, Nasa is investigating whether members of the public are put off by the noise produced by X-59 when it breaks the sound barrier.
Tests scheduled for November will see an F-18 fighter jet conduct dive manoeuvres off the shores of Galveston, Texas – an island city near Houston.
The plane will rapidly descend from almost 50,000 feet (15,200 metres), briefly going supersonic and firing off the sound likely to come from X-59 aircraft.
The noise, which Nasa calls a ‘sonic thump’, should sound more like a car door slamming as opposed to the booms produced by existing supersonic aircraft.
The agency will measure the sounds using sensors on the ground while gathering public reaction through a series of surveys.
Sasha Ellis, a NASA spokesperson for the X-59 mission, told Newsweek: ‘We’re solely focused on addressing the challenges of quiet supersonic flights over land, reducing that sonic boom to a sonic thump.’
Nasa pilot Jim Less will fire off ‘quiet’ sonic booms over a small city in Texas this month in a bid to gauge public reaction to the dampened supersonic thuds. Pictured is Less with the F-18 fighter jet aboard which he will perform the research
Alexandra Loubeau, Nasa’s team lead for sonic boom community response research at Langley, said in July: ‘We’ll never know exactly what everyone heard.
‘We won’t have a noise monitor on their shoulder inside their home.
‘But we’d like to at least have an estimate of the range of noise levels that they actually heard.’
X-59, which Nasa is developing with Lockheed Martin’s aeronautics branch, is scheduled to make its first flight in 2022.
Originally named the Low-Flight Flight Demonstrator by Nasa, the agency announced in June that the aircraft was to be called X-59 QueSST going forward.
The US Air Force made the name change in-part as a hat tip American X-plane history, which began in 1947 with the world’s first supersonic plane, the the Bell X-1.
‘For everyone working on this important project, this is great news and we’re thrilled with the designation,’ Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for Nasa’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, said in a statement in June.
WHAT IS NASA’S ‘SON OF CONCORDE’ X-PLANE?
Nasa is developing a 1,100mph (1,770kph) aircraft that has been dubbed the ‘son of Concorde’.
The vehicle is the first in a series of aircraft Nasa is developing with Lockheed Martin in a quest to build a commercially viable supersonic jet.
It is designed to fly at Mach 1.4 (1,100mph / 1,700 kph) at an altitude of 55,000 feet (10 miles).
Dubbed the X-59 Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST), the research craft aims to cut out the sonic booms associated with supersonic travel.
Pictured is an artist’s impression of the Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) low-boom flight demonstrator (LBFD)
The aircraft is shaped to separate the shocks and expansions associated with supersonic flight to reduce the volume of the shaped signature, and was developed by Lockheed’s Skunk Works over 20 years.
The team is hoping to achieve a sonic boom 60 dBA lower than other supersonic aircraft, such as Concorde.
Recent research has shown it is possible for a supersonic airplane to be shaped in such a way that the shock waves it forms when flying faster than the speed of sound can generate a sound at ground level so quiet it will hardly will be noticed by the public, if at all.
The X-59 project aims to cut out the noisy sonic booms that echoed above cities in the era of Concorde, while travelling at speeds of 1,100mph (Mach 1.4 / 1,700 km/h).
The loud booms that rang out whenever a Concorde broke the sound barrier were often described as ‘unsettling’ by members of the public, which ultimately limited the aircraft to flights over the Atlantic when it began carrying passengers in 1976.
X-59 is designed to stop shockwaves triggered by the movement of air particles when an aircraft breaks the sound barrier from merging – a phenomenon that gives off the telltale sonic boom of supersonic aircraft.
Nasa hopes to reduce the sound of the sonic boom to a quiet thud, similar to the sound of thunder rumbling in the distance or a neighbour closing their door.
Nasa is developing the aircraft with Lockheed Martin’s aeronautics branch with test flights planned for 2022. The plane is dubbed the Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) low-boom flight demonstrator (artist’s impression)
‘With the X-59 you’re still going to have multiple shockwaves because of the wings on the aircraft that create lift and the volume of the plane,’ said Ed Haering, a Nasa aerospace engineer at Nasa’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California.
‘But the airplane’s shape is carefully tailored such that those shockwaves do not combine.
‘Instead of getting a loud boom-boom, you’re going to get at least two quiet thump-thump sounds, if you even hear them at all.’
Nasa’s November tests will produce similar shockwaves using an F-18 fighter jet to conduct sharp manoeuvres in the air.
HOW WILL NASA REDUCE THE SOUND OF SONIC BOOMS?
In a conventional supersonic aircraft, shockwaves from the nose, cockpit, inlets, wings and other features come together as they move through the atmosphere into strong shocks emanating from the nose and tail.
These are known as bow and tail shocks, respectively.
As these shockwaves pass over the ground, air pressure rises sharply, declines, then rises rapidly again.
It’s this that produces the classic ‘double-bang’ sonic boom.
In a conventional supersonic aircraft, shockwaves from the nose, cockpit, inlets, wings and other features come together as they move through the atmosphere into strong shocks emanating from the nose and tail
Reshaping the aircraft to produce a longer, more slender shape is the best way to generate shockwaves of lower, more equal strength that do not form into such strong bow and tail shocks.
Nasa and other organisations are working on creating shapes to reduce sonic booms.
Stretching the nose to break the bow shock into a series of weaker shockwaves is particularly effective.
This lowers and spreads that initial pressure peak and softens the first bang of the sonic boom.
The aircraft, pilot by Nasa researcher Jim Less, will dive from 49,000 feet (15,000m) and go briefly supersonic before levelling off at 30,000 feet (9,000m).
Shockwaves produced by the manoeuvre will concentrate directly below the aircraft in the form of a very loud, focussed pair of sonic booms.
A few miles from the dive points, the noise quickly trails off as they spread out and weaken.
Flights conducted by Nasa in November will study the US public’s reactions to ‘quiet’ supersonic noises above their homes. Pictured is an artist’s impression of the Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) low-boom flight demonstrator (LBFD)
‘The result in that area: a pair of quiet sonic booms – soft thumps, really – which people on the ground, including those Nasa researchers and resident volunteers, might barely notice, if they hear anything at all,’ the agency wrote in a statement.
QueSST is the latest addition to the X-series of experimental aircraft and rockets, used to test and evaluate new technologies and aerodynamic concepts.
Their X designation indicates their research mission status within the US system of aircraft naming.
This all dates back to Chuck Yeager’s sound-barrier-breaking craft, the X-1, a rocket engine–powered aircraft, designed and built in 1945, that achieved a speed of nearly 1,000 miles per hour (1,600 kmh) in 1948.
The team hopes to reduce the sound of the sonic boom to a quiet thud, similar to the sound of thunder rumbling in the distance or a neighbour closing their door. This graphic compares the F18 sonic boom to the sonic ‘thump’ that Nasa aims to achieve in the future
Nasa’s vision for the X-59 was approved In the latest proposed US budget released by the Office Of Management And Budget In Washington, DC, in February.
The space agency was awarded $19.9 billion (£14.3bn) for the next year, $500 million (£360m) more than the previous year.
It is not known what proportion of this has been allocated for the supersonic aircraft project.
QueSST will be used as a test bed for technologies that could make their way into commercial planes.
Nasa is hoping to see the first flight tests take place in 2022, with public reaction tests to the final aircraft scheduled for the following year.
WHAT WAS CONCORDE?
Concorde was a turbojet-powered supersonic passenger jet that was operated until 2003.
It had a maximum speed over twice the speed of sound at Mach 2.04 (1,354mph or 2,180k per hour at cruise altitude) and could seat 92 to 128 passengers.
It was first flown in 1969, but needed further tests to establish it as viable as a commercial aircraft.
Concorde was a turbojet-powered supersonic passenger jet that was operated until 2003. It had a maximum speed over twice the speed of sound at Mach 2.04 and could seat 92 to 128 passengers
Concorde entered service in 1976 and continued flying for the next 27 years.
It is one of only two supersonic transports to have been operated commercially.
The other is the Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-144, which ran for a much shorter period of time before it was grounded and retired due to safety and budget issues.
Concorde was jointly developed and manufactured by Aérospatiale and the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) under an Anglo-French treaty. Concorde’s name, meaning harmony or union, reflects the cooperation on the project between the United Kingdom and France.
In the UK, any or all of the type are known simply as ‘Concorde’, without an article.
Twenty aircraft were built including six prototypes and development aircraft.
Air France (AF) and British Airways (BA) each received seven aircraft. The research and development failed to make a profit and the two airlines bought the aircraft at a huge discount.
Concorde was retired in 2003 due to a general downturn in the commercial aviation industry after the type’s only crash in 2000, the September 11 attacks in 2001, and a decision by Airbus, the successor to Aérospatiale and BAC, to discontinue maintenance support.