RENDERING: One proposed rendering of the Quiet Supersonic Technology, or QueSST, concept plane, which is in a preliminary design phase. (Rendering courtesy of NASA)
Supersonic travel took a step closer to reality this week, as NASA and Lockheed Martin have commenced the first of a series of high-speed wind tunnel tests on a project called the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) X-plane, which some are dubbing “The New Concorde.”
The Concorde moniker not at all accurate. The proposed QueSST X-plane and the nine percent model being used in testing have not been designed as a passenger aircraft. But if the technology proves successful, it will pave the way for a new era of high-speed or supersonic air travel.
Of course, the Concorde was a famed supersonic commercial jet. It could carry about 100 passengers and reach speeds of up to Mach 2.04 (up to 1,350 mph), allowing it to complete a trans-Atlantic flight from New York to London in just around three hours. The aircraft was expensive to upkeep and suffered from some bad press after a crash landing, and was subsequently retired in 2003.
But the larger issue with the Concorde and the success of supersonic travel as a whole, is the issue of the “sonic boom” associated with flights that “break the sound barrier.” Incidentally, NASA takes issue with the term breaking the sound barrier, which it calls “a popular but fundamentally misleading term that spoke more to the romantic notion of the challenges of high-speed flight than an insurmountable physical wall in the sky.”
At any rate, the noise created when aircraft attain speeds faster than the speed of light makes the technology impractical for nearly all commercial overland travel.
Which is where Lockheed Martin comes in. Last February it was awarded a $20 million contract to create an X-plane design that would mitigate the sonic boom. This week’s wind tunnel tests are a first step toward testing new low-sonic-boom or “sonic heartbeat” technology, which would scatter the multiple shockwaves, making the sound practically unnoticeable to people on the ground.
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“Our unique aircraft design is shaped to separate the shocks and expansions associated with supersonic flight, dramatically reducing the aircraft’s loudness,” said Peter Iosifidis, QueSST program manager at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. “Our design reduces the airplane’s noise signature to more of a ‘heartbeat’ instead of the traditional sonic boom that’s associated with current supersonic aircraft in flight today.”
If successful, the QueSST X-plane could ultimately reach speeds of up to Mach 1.4 (about 1,100 mph) or twice that of today’s commercial airliners and nearly as fast as that of the Concorde.
Project members hope that the data gathered from the QueSST X-plane will eventually help the Federal Aviation Administration and other international agencies update new noise-related regulations that will pave the way for commercial supersonic airliners over populated areas.
For now, engineers are undergoing several weeks of testing where they are exposing the model to wind speeds ranging from Mach 0.3 to Mach 1.6 to understand the aerodynamics and propulsion systems of this X-plane design.
If testing proves successful, NASA is expected to issue a new contract, for which Lockheed Martin will compete, to create a design and then build and test a full-size demonstration aircraft. If all goes as planned, the new X-plane model could take to the skies by 2020, which would then pave the way for the aerospace industry to adopt and apply the design to their own aircraft.
“If we can build some of these X-planes and demonstrate some of these technologies, we expect that will make it much easier and faster for U.S. industry to pick them up and roll them out into the marketplace” said Ed Waggoner, NASA’s Integrated Aviation Systems Program director.
The QueSST design is just one of a number planes in NASA's New Aviation Horizons (NAH) initiative, which aims to innovating aviation technologies in order to reduce noise, fuel consumption and emissions.
It’s worth noting that it’s been 70 years since Chuck Yeager famously “broke” the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 back in 1947.