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NASA Works to Restore Supersonic Passenger Flight

Barbara A. Schmitz


July, 2023 — Concorde made its last commercial flight on October 24, 2003, flying twice the speed of sound from New York to London in about 3.5 hours.

Nearly 20 years later, no commercial airline passenger has flown at supersonic speed since.

But NASA’s Quesst mission is hoping to change that. The program has the goal of using the X-59 research aircraft to collect data from communities in the United States that will help define sound limits for quiet supersonic flight over land.

Peter Coen, mission integration manager for the Quesst mission, said NASA plans to collect accepted data that supports the international effort to develop an en route noise standard that is quiet enough not to disturb people on the ground. Using this data, new sound-based rules regarding supersonic flight over land can be written and adopted, Peter said, which would open the doors to new commercial cargo and passenger markets and provide faster-than-sound air travel.

The X-59, which has technology that reduces the loudness of a sonic boom to a thump to people on the ground, was moved from its construction site to the flightline at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works on June 19, 2023. Next, the team will conduct ground tests to ensure the aircraft is safe to fly.

The research airplane is 99 feet, 7 inches long; has a wingspan of 29.5 feet; and has components from other airplanes, such as the cockpit and ejection seat of a T-38F and the landing gear of a F-16, Peter said. Altogether, the X-59 includes 500 components from other airplanes. Its design research speed will be Mach 1.4, or 925 mph.

“This will really allow us to take a major step forward and collect data,” Peter said. Acoustic validation is planned to begin in 2024, with detailed ground and flight measurements to prove the design, followed by the community response testing in 2025.

The X-59 created some design and engineering chal-lenges the team didn’t expect, Peter said. One was the amount of detail that was required, even in the smallest feature changes.

“Every little thing had to be modeled and tested,” he said.

Another challenge came with taking parts from other existing airplanes, making the X-59 an electrically complicated aircraft.

And its long, sloping nose, even at cruise, created such an angle that the pilot couldn’t see at takeoff and landing.

“So we developed an external vision system (XVS) with a camera mounted on the nose and a high-definition display,” Peter said. “It gives the pilot forward vision” while small windows on the side help with vision during the final flare.

Testing of the system in a King Air showed it to be effective and “almost better than the eyeball in hazy conditions,” Peter said. The XVS can also be enhanced with graphical flight data in an augmented reality for approaches, landings, and takeoffs.

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