It has been more than a decade since the Concorde was retired from service, and since then no passenger aircraft has exceeded the speed of sound. That might change in the not-too-distant future, thanks to a project from NASA and industry partner Lockheed Martin Corporation. The agency is close to testing its design for Quiet Supersonic Transport, or QueSST, which could lead to passenger jets that can again reach supersonic speeds.
The Concorde was never seen as a major commercial success — more of a vanity project for the few European airlines that operated the planes. The nature of supersonic flight meant the sonic boom at ground level could shatter windows. Thus, the plane could only fly at high speeds over the ocean. The trip between Europe and New York was fast, but other routes were not feasible. When the travel industry took a downturn in 2003, the Concorde was mothballed.
QueSST technology has the potential to make supersonic air travel workable even over land, and NASA has announced that its preliminary design review is done. The aim is to build a plane that can fly at supersonic speeds without the disruptive sonic boom. NASA, with the help of Lockheed Martin, has designed and tested a scale model version of the so-called Low Boom Flight Demonstration (LBFD) experimental aircraft, known as an X-plane. This model was placed in a 6-by-8-foot supersonic wind tunnel at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. This led engineers to confirm the fuselage, wing, and engine design could allow for quieter supersonic flight.
The next step is building a full-sized LBDF X-plane, which will be a single-seat aircraft intended to test the QueSST technology. Any future planes intended to carry passengers would be a separate design that incorporates elements of this one. If it’s a success, the X-plane will produce a soft “thump” at ground level rather than an explosive boom.
NASA expects to award the contract to build the X-plane later this year, and it could be in the air as soon as 2021. You might think Lockheed Martin would have an inside track here. But NASA says it’s accepting proposals from all interested parties and will make a decision based on that. NASA plans to fly the aircraft over communities and gather feedback on the nature of the “thump.” If all goes well, we could have supersonic passenger flights in the 2030s.
Now read: Boom Technologies unveils its new supersonic jet prototype