Five Things to Know About NASA’s Supersonic X-Plane

The $247.5 million aircraft could revive supersonic flight for civilians

An artist’s concept of the low-boom flight demonstrator outside the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company’s Skunk Works hangar in Palmdale, California. (Lockheed Martin)
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NASA has announced plans to design and build an aircraft that can fly faster than the speed of sound with quiet, supersonic technology. The experimental plane, or X-plane, is called the Low-Boom Flight Demonstration (LBFD) and will be designed to reduce the sonic boom associated with supersonic flight, according to NASA's press release.

NASA has given Lockheed Martin a $247.5 million contract to build the unique, single-pilot plane by 2021. This marks the first time in decades the agency is moving forward with a piloted X-plane, according to the release.

Here’s what you need to know about the super quiet, supersonic jet.

When was the first supersonic flight?

The first flight to break the sound barrier was the Bell X-1, which took to the skies in 1947 with Chuck Yeager as pilot. Yeager became the fastest man on Earth when he reached a speed of Mach 1.06, Jack Stewart reported for Wired last fall. Mach 1 is equal to the speed of sound in air, which varies depending on temperature and altitude (at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it's about 754 miles per hour). In 1967, the X-15 set a manned speed record by flying at hypersonic speeds above Mach 5.

Why make a supersonic plane?

It's all about speed. The last commercial supersonic flight, Concorde, could travel from London to New York in less than three and a half hours, cruising at speeds of around 1,350 mph. Today, most airlines take closer to seven and a half hours to complete the same trip.

The travel benefits are clear, but there's still the issue of the noise associated with supersonic flight, known as a sonic boom. With this latest X-plane, one thing researchers are attempting to do is to reduce the noise.

What is sonic boom?

NASA has researched sonic booms since the 1940s. According to a NASA press release, shockwaves from traditional aircraft designs combine as they move away and expand from the airplane’s nose and tail. This results into two roaring sonic booms.

While NASA's goal with its newest X-plane isn’t to silence the sound, they're attempting to make it much softer. "I’m trying not to use the word sonic boom," Peter Coen, project manager for NASA’s Commercial Supersonics Technology Project, tells Mashable’s Mark Kaufman. "I’m trying to ban that from everyone’s vocabulary."

What’s unique about the newest X-plane?

The X-plane’s design will include sleek features that will help it barely make a noise as it flies over cities. As Jack Stewart writes for Wired, the plane's long, pointy nose and "swept back wings" makes it look a little like a missile.

The design’s shape minimizes the shockwaves and prevents them from colliding. Instead, it directs them to the ground still separated, the press release states. People on the ground should hear something like a car door closing rather than an epic boom.

And while it won’t reach Concorde speeds just yet, the new X-plane is designed to fly at about 940 mph at an altitude of 55,000 feet. It will be the length of an NBA basketball court, LiveScience’s Brandon Specktor writes.

Why is commercial supersonic flights not running today?

The era of commercial supersonic flights stretched from 1969 to 2003, Mark Ellwood reports for The Wall Street Journal. But noise and environmental concerns plagued the period. The era ended soon after the supersonic Concorde's tragic crash in 2000, BBC News reported. The number of passengers choosing to go supersonic never rebounded.

Since then, commercial supersonic flights over land have been banned. But if all goes as planned, the new X-plane could revolutionize air travel.

About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

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