NASA unveiled plans Feb. 29 to begin work on an airplane prototype that could pave the way for quiet, supersonic passenger jets someday.
The agency said it has awarded a $20 million, 17-month contract to Lockheed Martin to complete the preliminary design of the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) prototype. If that effort goes as intended, NASA will hold a competition to finish the design and build the single-seat, single-engine demonstration plane. Flight tests of the 90-foot-long, 20,000-pound prototype could begin as early as late 2019.
Aircraft flying faster than the speed of sound push air molecules aside with such force as to create disturbances or “shock waves.” QueSST will have a long, slender nose to prevent individual shock waves from each part of the aircraft from combining into massive shock waves that produce loud, startling noises known as sonic booms.
Unlike the now-retired Concorde supersonic airliner, which was banned from flying over U.S. land due to its explosive-sounding sonic boom, the “low boom” QueSST plane will produce more of a “soft thump,” NASA said. “Just imagine several years down the road, [the plane] starts flying over Chicago and Los Angeles and, hopefully, people cannot hear or not even know that a supersonic airplane just flew by over their heads,” said Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics, who joined NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at a press conference at Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C.
The prototype will use an existing General Electric F404 engine, which typically powers F/A-18 fighter jets. QueSST will be able to fly about 1,100 miles per hour, or almost double the typical speed of roughly 600 miles per hour for today’s subsonic airliners, said Peter Coen, NASA project manager for commercial supersonic technologies.
QueSST is the first in a series of “X-planes” that NASA plans to develop in the coming years to make air travel faster, quieter, safer and more fuel-efficient. Another X-plane is expected to be a “hybrid wing body shape” whose wing blends into the body, compared to today’s “tube-and-wing” airliners.