Skip to main content

NASA wants to bring supersonic flights back with the ultra-quiet X-59 craft

Illustration of the completed X-59 QueSST landing on a runway. Lockheed Martin

It’s strange to note that commercial air flights have in some ways actually gotten slower over the last fifty years. In 1976, the supersonic Concorde aircraft entered service, ferrying passengers across the Atlantic in half the time of regular aircraft. But a deadly crash in 2000 spelled the end for the iconic plane, and it has been retired since 2003.

During the 70s, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) banned flights at speeds above Mach 1 over land due to the noise caused by sonic booms. Supersonic planes like Concord could not operate within the U.S, despite the potential benefits of faster flights.

Related Videos

Now, though, NASA is developing a quieter supersonic aircraft, and the FAA is considering changing its rules to allow supersonic aircraft to fly if they stay below a certain noise threshold.

The aim of NASA’s project is to “[reduce] the loudness of a sonic boom to that of a gentle thump” which would allow supersonic flights to take place over land masses such as the continental U.S. as part of the Low-Boom Flight Demonstration.

The plane NASA is developing for this mission is called the X-59, shaped in a way which reduces sonic boom,  and it has just been cleared for final assembly. Now contractor Lockheed Martin can begin construction of the key parts of the plane: The main fuselage, wings, and empennage (tail assembly).

The first phase of this mission is the development of craft, which will be followed by noise testing set for 2022 and 2023. If the noise levels are acceptable, the next two years will be spent seeing how the public reacts to low-boom flights to persuade regulators to allow them. Finally, data will be presented to regulators in 2026, and the regulations may be changed to allow quieter supersonic flights.

The X-59 isn’t the only aircraft NASA is currently working on. There’s also the experimental electric airplane, the Maxwell X-57, which aims to demonstrate how electric aviation technology could be used by commercial airplanes to lessen the environmental impact of flying.

And there’s SOFIA, NASA’s observatory-on-a-plane which uses a modified Boeing jetliner to fly above the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere in order to detect signals from distant locations which would otherwise be blocked.

These craft are set to be joined by the X-59 once final assembly and integration of the plane’s systems is complete, which is scheduled for late next year.

Editors' Recommendations

SpaceX to launch NASA’s Psyche mission to a strange metal asteroid
This artist's-concept illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA's Psyche mission near the mission's target, the metal asteroid Psyche.

This artist concept illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA's Psyche mission near the mission's target, the metal asteroid Psyche. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin

NASA has contracted SpaceX to carry out the launch for its upcoming Psyche mission to a strange metal asteroid in our solar system. The launch will use one of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rockets, for a cost of $117 million.

Read more
SpaceX delays its in-flight abort test until Sunday morning due to rough seas
Falcon 9

SpaceX has announced it is delaying the in-flight abort test due to "sustained winds and rough seas in the recovery area." It will attempt the launch tomorrow, Sunday, January 19, in a six-hour test window beginning at 5 a.m. PT.

The launch will be shown live via SpaceX's webcast.

Read more
SpaceX’s Dragon craft is departing the ISS on Tuesday: Here’s how to watch
A SpaceX Dragon resupply ship approaches the International Space Station

A SpaceX Dragon resupply ship approaches the International Space Station on Dec. 8, 2019, as both spacecraft orbit 261 miles above Kazakhstan. NASA

This week, SpaceX's Dragon cargo spacecraft will depart from the International Space Station (ISS), where it has been docked since December 7, 2019. It will carry 3,600 pounds of cargo back to Earth including faulty parts and the results of scientific experiments. After detaching from the ISS, the craft will fire its thrusters, execute a deorbit burn, and perform a parachute-assisted splashdown into the Pacific Ocean southwest of Long Beach, California.

Read more