Nasa has unveiled a one-of-a-kind quiet supersonic aircraft as part of the US space agency’s mission to make commercial supersonic flight possible.
In a joint ceremony with Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale, California, on Friday, Nasa revealed the X-59, an experimental aircraft that is expected to fly at 1.4 times the speed of sound – or 925mph (1,488 km/h).
The aircraft, which stands at 99.7ft (30.4 metres) long and 29.5ft wide, has a thin, tapered nose that comprises nearly a third of the aircraft’s full length – a feature designed to disperse shock waves that would typically surround supersonic aircraft and result in sonic booms.
In attempts to further enhance the aircraft’s supersonic capabilities, engineers positioned the cockpit almost halfway down the length and removed the forward-facing windows typically found in other aircraft.
Explaining the configurations at Friday’s launch event, Nasa’s deputy administrator, Pam Melroy, said: “We made that decision to make it quieter, but it’s actually an important step forward in and of itself in advancing aviation technology.
“[With the] huge challenge [of] limited visibility in the cockpit, the team developed the external vision system, which really is a marvel of high-resolution cameras feeding an ultra-high-resolution monitor.”
Melroy added: “The external vision system has the potential to influence future aircraft designs where the absence of that forward-facing window may prove advantageous for engineering reasons, as it did for us.”
The aircraft also features an engine mounted on top as well as a smooth underside to prevent shock waves from forming behind the aircraft and causing sonic booms.
The X-59 is set to take its first flight later this year and then its first quiet supersonic flight, Nasa said. The agency added that once test flights are completed, the X-59 will fly over several cities across the US that have yet to be selected and will collect public feedback on the sound it generates.
For the last 50 years, commercial supersonic travel over land has been banned in the US because of public concerns over the explosive sonic booms that could be heard from miles away.
Addressing that ban at Friday’s launch event, Bob Pearce – Nasa’s associate administrator for its aeronautics research mission – said: “Grounded flight testing showed us it was possible to design an aircraft that would produce a soft thump instead of a sonic boom. Is that thump quiet enough to allow supersonic flight over land? Our laboratory studies would say yes, but the real answer can only be found by engaging the people who would hear it during daily life.”
Pierce said the X-59’s job would be to “collect data from the people below, determine if that sonic thump is acceptable and then turn the data over to US and international regulatory authorities in hopes to then lift that ban”.
In the post-launch press conference, David Richardson, Lockheed Martin’s X-59 program director, said that taxi tests of the X-59 were expected to start around late spring or early summer.
“If there’s anything that we identify that is not performing nominally, we will go and make adjustments or if there are any parts that are not functioning, we will replace them to make sure the airplane is fully functional and airworthy and safe before we commit it to first flight,” said Richardson.