NASA and Lockheed Martin unveil quiet supersonic aircraft

NASA has unveiled an experimental quiet supersonic aircraft that it claims could pave the way for a new generation of commercial aircraft that can travel faster than the speed of sound.

NASA’s X-59 quiet supersonic research aircraft sits on the apron outside Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works facility at dawn in Palmdale, California.
NASA’s X-59 quiet supersonic research aircraft sits on the apron outside Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works facility at dawn in Palmdale, California. - NASA

Developed in partnership with Lockheed Martin, the X-59  is the centrepiece of NASA’s Quesst mission, which focuses on providing data to help regulators reconsider rules that prohibit commercial supersonic flight over land.

For 50 years, the U.S. and other nations have prohibited such flights because of the disturbance caused by loud, startling sonic booms on the communities below. The X-59 is expected to fly at 1.4 times the speed of sound, or 925 mph while generating a quieter sonic thump.

At 99.7 feet long and 29.5 feet wide, the aircraft’s shape and the technological advancements it houses will make quiet supersonic flight possible.

The X-59’s thin, tapered nose accounts for almost a third of its length and will break up the shock waves that would ordinarily result in a supersonic aircraft causing a sonic boom.

Due to this configuration, the cockpit is located almost halfway down the length of the aircraft – and does not have a forward-facing window. Instead, the Quesst team developed the eXternal Vision System, a series of high-resolution cameras feeding a 4K monitor in the cockpit.

The Quesst team also designed the aircraft with its engine mounted on top and gave it a smooth underside to help keep shockwaves from merging behind the aircraft and causing a sonic boom.

“It’s thrilling to consider the level of ambition behind Quesst and its potential benefits,” “NASA will share the data and technology we generate from this one-of-a-kind mission with regulators and with industry. By demonstrating the possibility of quiet commercial supersonic travel over land, we seek to open new commercial markets for U.S. companies and benefit travelers around the world.” said Bob Pearce, associate administrator for aeronautics research at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The aircraft is set to take off for the first time later this year, followed by its first quiet supersonic flight.  Once NASA completes flight tests, the agency will fly the aircraft over several to-be-selected cities across the U.S., collecting input about the sound the X-59 generates and how people perceive it. NASA will provide that data to the Federal Aviation Administration and international regulators.