NASA has awarded Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works a $247.5-million contract to design, build and flight test a low-boom X-plane that could lead to a new era of supersonic air travel in the next three to five years, according to a Lockheed Martin press release on Tuesday.
The experimental aircraft is scheduled to take to the skies in 2021 with a top velocity of 1.5 times the speed of sound, or about 990 miles per hour (1,600 kilometers) at an altitude of 55,000 feet, Lockheed said. While the jet will only have room for a pilot, it will test design principles that soften the sonic boom.
“It is super exciting to be back designing and flying X-planes at this scale,” said Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics. "Our long tradition of solving the technical barriers of supersonic flight to benefit everyone continues."
The news comes less than two weeks after President Trump signed the federal budget deal, which funds the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator (LBFD) program, according to Space.com. In the budget proposal, the Trump administration noted that the X-plane "would open a new market for U.S. companies to build faster commercial airliners, creating jobs and cutting cross-country flight times in half."
With the funding in place, Lockheed Martin will build the full-scale experimental aircraft, combining NASA’s Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) into the airframe’s design. It has been over forty years since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned commercial supersonic travel over skies of the United States, and subsequently, other nations such as Europe followed suit.
However, the X-plane is expected to reverse the decades-old ruling, by utilizing NASA’s QueSST technology that would dramatically reduce the noise from a sonic boom.
“This piloted X-plane would be built specifically to fly technologies that reduce the loudness of a sonic boom to that of a gentle thump,” Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, said during a news conference today.
The X-plane would start test trials over select cities across the United States in mid-2022 and NASA will “ask the people living and working in those communities to tell us what they heard, if anything”, Shin added.
NASA will then compile the data from the human subjects, and submit the “scientifically collected human response” data to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), “so they can use the data to change the current rule that completely bans civil supersonic flights over land,” Shin said.
“When the rule is changed, the door will open to an aviation industry ready to enter [a] new supersonic market in our country and around the world,” Shin said. “This X-plane is a critical step closer to that exciting future.”
The maiden flight of the aircraft is scheduled for summer 2021. Shortly after that, NASA will conduct “Mach 1.4 flight tests at an altitude of 55,000 feet over 50-square-mile testing areas in the American Southwest,” said Popular Mechanics.
At 940 mph, the X-plane is projected to “create a sound about as loud as a car door closing, 75 Perceived Level decibel (PLdB), instead of a sonic boom,” said Lockheed Martin. Compared to the Concorde, a retired British-French turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner, the X-plane would have a 31 percent reduction in noise when the aircraft breaks the speed of sound.
Popular Mechanics indicates that the X-plane will be “affordable” using parts from preexisting American military aircraft.
”The supersonic plane is designed to be affordable by using parts taken from other jets, such as the canopy of a T-38, the landing gear of an F-16, and various components from the F/A-18. The engine is a GE 414-400, the same engine used on the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The contract awarded to Lockheed Martin to build the jet is worth $247.5 million.”
“We’re honored to continue our partnership with NASA to enable a new generation of supersonic travel,” said Peter Iosifidis, Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator program manager, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. “We look forward to applying the extensive work completed under QueSST to the design, build and flight test of the X-plane, providing NASA with a demonstrator to make supersonic commercial travel possible for passengers around the globe.”
If everything goes as plan, NASA and Lockheed could usher in a new, quieter era of supersonic air travel, with commercial service available some time in the mid-2020s.