NASA has finally unveiled its X-59 plane to gather data that will determine if supersonic commercial aviation over land and US cities should be legalised.
The question is whether the experimental X-59 aircraft will be able to fly at the speed of sound quietly.
This would justify a change in the regulations and allow supersonic commercial aviation.
The X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology has been under development since 2019.
Nicknamed Quesst, it’s designed specifically for the new jet.
The aircraft was built at Lockheed Martin’s ‘Skunk Works’ facility in Palmdale, California.
While it will fly at supersonic speeds of 1,236 km/h (768 mph) at sea level – the sonic boom you’d expect has been reduced to a ‘thump’ at the volume of a car door slamming.
Aircraft create a wake of shock waves once they pass the speed of sound resulting in a ‘sonic boom’.
At roughly 110 decibels, it’s so loud it can startle humans and animals, shatter windows and set off car alarms.
According to National Geographic, supersonic flights over land have been banned by the US Federal Aviation Administration since 1973, due to the noise disruptions that sonic booms can cause.
That’s why the famous Concorde was only able to go supersonic over water on transoceanic flights because of the sonic boom it would make.
The X-59, which rolled out of its hangar during a live event on 12 January, could be a reason for change.
Its streamline design will aid it reaching a speed of Mach 1.4 – or 1489 km/h (925 mph).
The aircraft will fly at an altitude of 55,000 feet (16,764m), powered by a single General Electric Aviation motor.
The striking geometry of the supersonic jet mean it’s 99.7-foot (30m) long and 29.5-foot(9m) wide.
However it’s the sharp, elongated beak-like nose section of the X-59 that makes the difference.
Measuring 38 feet (11.5m) in length, it allows shockwaves to form but they never merge together, reducing sound.
Unusually the long nose also means that the windscreen is rendered obsolete.
Instead, pilots use what NASA calls the External Vision System, or XVS, to see the area in front of the aircraft.
The aircraft will undergo ground testing before high-speed taxi tests and an eventual first flight.
NASA has not yet put a timeline in place for this.
Cathy Bahm, who manages the project at NASA, is hopeful about the rule change.
“Concorde’s sound would have been like thunder right overhead or a balloon popping right next to you, whereas our sound will be more of a thump or a rumble, more consistent with distant thunder or your neighbour’s car door down the street being closed,” she said.
“We think that it’ll more blend into the background of everyday life than the Concorde did.”
A small, experimental aircraft, Bahm is also confident that, if it proves successful, it will be able to guide the design of large commercial planes.
“I believe that there will be parts of the X-59, essentially the DNA of X-59, incorporated into those aircraft: the long nose, the engine over the wings, the smooth surface under the aircraft. I think those are all key for the lower noise signature,” says Bahm.
Sadly, reintroducing supersonic travel could lead to higher carbon emissions, a NASA report found in 2021.
However, the Boom Overture is another aircraft in contention to replace the Concorde and it’s 80 percent more efficient than an average airliner.