NASA Has Supersonic Ideas That Could Cut Your Flight Time in Half

Ever since 1973, the FAA has set a ceiling on the maximum speed of aircraft traveling over US soil. Sonic booms are generally considered a disruption, to put it kindly. At close range they can break glass. At farther ranges, they sound like mortar bombs from fireworks, and can wreak similar havoc on both pets and farm animals.

The boom produced when an aircraft breaks the sound barrier is continuous and travels with the plane, meaning people living under high-traffic air corridors could be subjected to multiple instances per day. But NASA thinks it can change how sonic booms are heard on the ground, and in the process, create aircraft that are capable of breaking the sound barrier without any disruption on the ground.

After decades of work from many different researchers and companies, NASA has enough faith in its findings to request bids from companies to build a demo model of an aircraft that could reduce sonic booms to the point that they’d sound more like a distant hum or soft thump, rather than a potentially window-breaking, several-seconds-long explosion. The Concorde, one of only two SSTs (Super Sonic Transports) to enter commercial service, was built to specs developed in the late 1960s, and debuted in 1976. In the 41 years since, our ability to model and test aircraft via simulation has increased by multiple orders of magnitude. This allows the consideration of designs that weren’t plausible to test before.

Sonic-Boom-Image

A sonic boom produced by an aircraft moving at M=2.92, calculated from the cone angle of 20 degrees. An observer hears nothing until the shock wave, on the edges of the cone, crosses their location. Image by Melamed Katz via Wikipedia.

NASA has proposed spending $ 390 million over the next five years to develop a piloted, single-engine X-Plane. The craft would be tested over populated areas to gather information on its noise output and the characteristics of the boom it creates. This new plan is the result of successful wind tunnel testing on a small, non-piloted prototype. President Trump included funding for the first year of the project in his 2018 budget proposal.

According to Peter Coen, the project manager for NASA’s commercial supersonic research team, planes based on the Quiet SST (QueSST) could allow airline companies to create competitive products thanks to growing demand for quicker travel. This growth “will drive the demand for broadly available faster air travel,” Coen told Bloomberg Businessweek. “That’s going to make it possible for companies to offer competitive products in the future.”

Because supersonic transports are literally 2-3x faster than other planes, it means they can fly more often and cover more routes. This assumes that maintenance time and part replacement costs can be kept in line with other jets. While this wouldn’t be true when such vehicles launch, a successful product family would lead, long-term, to lower costs as economies of scale kick in. Planes like the Concorde never had the opportunity to benefit from such scaling — the FAA’s restrictions meant the plane could only fly a limited number of routes.

NASA expects to share the data it collects from its tests with Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, as well as startups like Boom Technologies and Aerion. A three-hour flight from New York to LA? That sounds awesome to us.

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