Lockheed and NASA Unveil Supersonic Jet X-59 That Curbs Window-Shattering Sonic Boom

Lockheed Martin Corp. and NASA gave the public a sneak peek of a plane that could pave the way for cutting some flight times in half.  The X-59, which was unveiled on Friday afternoon in Palmdale, California, has been designed to fly faster than the speed of sound with much less noise. When planes break the sound barrier — called Mach 1 — a loud and continuous sonic boom is created that can shatter windows on the ground. The US banned civilian aircraft from reaching this speed over land in 1973.

“This breakthrough really redefines the feasibility of commercial supersonic travel over land,” said Pam Melroy, NASA deputy administrator and a former commander of the space shuttle, during the ceremony to unveil the nearly 100-foot-long (30 meters) plane. “It brings us closer to a future that we can all understand: cutting flight time from New York to Los Angeles in half.”

Lockheed Martin won a NASA contract in 2018 valued at about $250 million to build a demonstrator plane, which has room for one pilot and is powered by General Electric Co.’s F414 engine, to help overcome this hurdle. The aircraft is designed to reach 1.5 times the speed of sound, while reducing a sonic boom to a weak thump with its v-shaped wing and elongated nose. The company originally had expected to fly the X-59 in 2021. The overall project, including testing, will cost about $632 million over eight years, NASA said.

If the X-59 is successful and then applied to commercial aviation, flight times could drastically be reduced. Lockheed has said it will reach speeds of 925 mph (1,489 kph), far surpassing today’s single-aisle passenger jets that top out at about 550 mph. Besides overcoming the sonic boom, the industry would have to deal with more stringent noise regulations at airports than when the European-built Concorde stopped making supersonic flights in 2003. There is also heightened scrutiny over the impact of aircraft emissions on the environment.

The shape of the nearly 100-foot (30 meter) plane, which has a cockpit with no forward facing glass, is designed to disperse the shockwaves that emanate from a supersonic aircraft and then merge to create the thunderclap sound know as the sonic boom. The pilot sees through a high-resolution camera that feeds images to a monitor, one of many innovations that will help advance commercial aircraft design, Melroy said.

“The external-vision system has the potential to influence future aircraft designs, where the absence of that forward facing window may prove advantageous for engineering reasons, as it did for us,” she said.

The plane isn’t ready to fly yet and will undergo more ground tests to determine if any further assembly tweaks are required, said NASA engineer Mark Mangelsdorf in an email response to questions. The X-59 is expected to have its first flight this year, but a date hasn’t been set. The plan is for the research aircraft to fly over yet-to-be-selected communities to measure whether the noise level on the ground is low enough to be accepted by the public.

Aerion Corp., a startup backed by Texas billionaire Robert Bass, attempted to build a business jet that would cruise over the ocean at 1.4 times the speed of sound and throttle below that barrier over land. The company folded in 2021 because of a lack of funding. Boom Technology Inc. plans to build a supersonic airliner and has attracted interest from American Airlines Group Inc., United Airlines Holdings Inc. and Japan Airlines Co.

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