NASA announced Monday it had selected a team led by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics to complete a preliminary design for a “low boom” supersonic passenger plane. Lockheed Martin will receive about $20 million over a period of 17 months for the project, which aims to fill the gap left by the retirement of the Concorde in 2003.
“NASA is working hard to make flight greener, safer and quieter — all while developing aircraft that travel faster, and building an aviation system that operates more efficiently,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. “To that end, it’s worth noting that it's been almost 70 years since Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 as part of our predecessor agency’s high speed research. Now we’re continuing that supersonic X-plane legacy with this preliminary design award for a quieter supersonic jet with an aim toward passenger flight.”
Toward this end, NASA’s Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) had asked industry teams to submit design concepts for a piloted test aircraft that can fly at supersonic speeds, but emits only a low “heartbeat,” rather than a loud boom currently associated with supersonic flight.
Sonic booms are produced when a supersonic plane breaks the sound barrier, creating, in the process, a shockwave that is accompanied by a loud booming sound that can be heard for miles. As a result, Concordes faced a gamut of restrictions to curb noise pollution wherever they flew during their 27-year operational history.
NASA did not provide details of how it plans to bring noise associated with supersonic flight down to acceptable levels, only stating that it would be done through "innovations in aircraft design that depart from the conventional tube-and-wing aircraft shape."
“Developing, building and flight testing a quiet supersonic X-plane is the next logical step in our path to enabling the industry's decision to open supersonic travel for the flying public,” Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission, said in the statement.
Work on the preliminary design for the aircraft will be conducted at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Depending on funding, the space agency aims to begin flight tests by 2020.