Nasa are developing 'quiet' supersonic passenger planes that could be ready to fly by 2020

Supersonic passenger aeroplanes look as though they’re just around the corner, as Nasa and Lockheed Martin have teamed up to begin the first high-speed wind tunnel tests for the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) X-plane.

Supersonic travel – for those who don’t know – means to travel faster than the speed of sound.

According to Nasa, the agency is testing a preliminary model of Lockheed Martin’s X-plane design at their Glenn Research Centre in Cleveland, using their supersonic wind tunnel.

During the next eight weeks, engineers will be exposing the model to wind speeds ranging from Mach 0.3 to Mach 1.6 (approximately 150 to 950 mph) to understand the aerodynamics of the X-plane design as well as aspects of the propulsion system.

“We’ll be measuring the lift, drag and side forces on the model at different angles of attack to verify that it performs as expected,” said aerospace engineer Ray Castner, who leads propulsion testing for Nasa’s QueSST effort. “We also want to make sure the air flows smoothly into the engine under all operating conditions.”

Although supersonic flight has been achieved before, the mission of QueSST is to deliver high-speed flight with revolutionary low-impact sound.

Recent research has shown it is possible for a supersonic aeroplane to be shaped in such a way that the shock waves it forms when flying faster than the speed of sound can generate a sound at ground level so quiet it will hardly will be noticed by the public, if at all.

Supersonic airplanes
(Nasa)

“Our unique aircraft design is shaped to separate the shocks and expansions associated with supersonic flight, dramatically reducing the aircraft’s loudness,” said Peter Iosifidis, QueSST program manager at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. “Our design reduces the airplane’s noise signature to more of a ‘heartbeat’ instead of the traditional sonic boom that’s associated with current supersonic aircraft in flight today.”

The QueSST design is one of a series of X-planes envisioned in Nasa’s New Aviation Horizons (NAH) initiative, which aims to reduce fuel use, emissions and noise through innovations in aircraft design that depart from the conventional tube-and-wing aircraft shape.

The design and build phases for the NAH aircraft will be staggered over several years with the low boom flight demonstrator starting its flight campaign around 2020, with other NAH X-planes following in subsequent years – depending on funding.

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