NASA’S Supersonic Technology Could Cut Transcontinental Flight Times In Half

Transcontinental flights from East to West coasts account more than 100 United States flights per day, and their flight time could get cut in half thanks to the $247.5 million contract NASA signed with Lockheed Martin back in April. NASA’s goal is to create a quiet supersonic plane, the X-59 QueSST, a “low-boom flight demonstrator” designed to show federal and international regulators that supersonic jets can generate a sound equal to today’s current commercial airliners. If the X-59 project is successful, the hope is that it will lead to a change in FAA regulations and launch a new generation of speedier commercial flights.

The main reason supersonic jets have never been utilized for commercial flights has always been the noise created at 767 miles per hour. Back in 1973, the FAA banned supersonic planes from flying over the continental United States, but NASA thinks it will finally be able to solve the issue that’s plagued aerospace engineers for decades, decreasing the sonic boom sound to the point of acceptability.

Image courtesy of NASA

NASA has already created a design for the supersonic airliner with a slimmer frame to reduce the “acoustic signature” and in early November they will test a modified F/A-18 Hornet combat jet over Galveston, Texas to mimic sonic booms that would mirror the noise of an X-59. NASA has also recruited 500 people on the ground to answer questions about the level of sound they experience.

“We’re solely focused on addressing the challenges of quiet supersonic flights over land, reducing that sonic boom to a sonic thump,” said Sasha Ellis, a NASA spokesperson for the X-59 mission.

Once the testing is complete, NASA will share their findings with Lockheed Martin who is currently prepared to start constructing an X-59 in January 2019 with the goal of having them ready for trials in 2021. NASA will then provide the FAA with sound data so they can begin to construct their own supersonic planes. Peter Coen, NASA’s project manager for commercial supersonic technology, said sonic boom lessons from the X-59 could be scaled up to plane capacity as large as 100 passengers.

Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin

One potential downfall of supersonic jets is that they would likely add to our carbon emissions problem and serve as a possible accelerator to global warming. Once NASA and Lockheed solve the supersonic sound problem, they plan to focus on the environmental effects of the planes emissions and fuel efficiency.

The average traveler likely won’t be the first to experience supersonic transcontinental travel as the initial beneficiaries will be high-end corporate customers. “Such flights won’t be available for vacations to Disney World. It’s designed for road warriors who need to get to and return from places quickly,” said Vik Kachoria, president and CEO of Spike Aerospace, which is building a supersonic corporate jet for ocean routes. “As with most new products, the affluent are more likely to be the first adopters,” said Iosifidis. Once the technology is taken up, prices typically tend to fall.