Game changer: Supersonic X-59 one step closer to first flight

Supersonic flight creates an unpleasant sonic boom and that is why commercial supersonic jet travel is banned in the United States. NASA and Lockheed Marine Skunk works plan to change that so that one day people can fly at a speed that would halve the time spent in the air to reach their destination. The two organizations are collaborating on a testbed aircraft called the X-59. This aircraft has just completed months of ground testing in Texas and is returning to Palmdale, California at Skunk Works for further testing.

What kind of speed are we talking about?

The idea behind the X-59 is to make supersonic flight at over MACH 1 (767 miles per hour) safer and quieter so U.S. and international regulators change rules and laws to allow ultra- fast across the country.

Today’s commercial airliners typically fly at a speed of 460 to 575 miles per hour at a cruising altitude of approximately 36,000 feet. The X-59 is tested to see how well it can withstand the challenges of supersonic speeds, so it only produces a more desirable “sonic kick” instead of the unsettling sonic boom.

X-59 – It looks good for the first flight

“Ground tests on the X-59 were performed to ensure the aircraft’s ability to withstand the loads and stresses of supersonic flight – or at speeds above Mach 1. The vehicle’s fuel systems were also calibrated and tested at Lockheed Martin’s Ft. Worth Facilities With its return to California, the X-59 will undergo further ground testing as it nears full development completion and continues to progress on the road to first flight,” according to a NASA press release.

Sonic Thump is much quieter

The designers and engineers of the X-59 have big plans for the aircraft.

It will be able to fly at an altitude of 55,000 feet at MACH 1.4 (925 miles per hour). The X-59 is 99 feet long with a wingspan of 32 feet. That pesky sonic boom will be reduced to a sound that looks like a car door closing. The X-59 uses QueSST (Silent SuperSonic technology) to attenuate the booms.

Use existing parts and components

The X-59 program implements practices that reduce price and delivery time by using parts and mechanisms already used by other Lockheed Martin aircraft. It borrows the landing gear of an F-16 fighter. It has the same cockpit canopy as a NASA T-38 trainer possesses. Propulsion will be partly similar to a U-2 spy plane. the General Electric’s F414 engine variant is used by F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. It borrows the control stick from a F-117 stealth fighter, according to NASA.

Lower the cockpit for faster flight

The front of the plane, however, is different. The pilot will have to rely on a network of cameras called the External vision system (XV). This allows the cockpit and extended nose to sit low for smoother supersonic flight that reduces sonic boom.

Can the regs be modified to allow supersonic speeds?

NASA and Lockheed are planning the first flight late this year or next. Then, the idea is to fly over the cities and measure the noise. Finally, by 2027, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Federal Aviation Administration could change regulations to allow supersonic flight in commercial aircraft.



Low-boom flight demonstrator of NASA’s silent supersonic technology.

X-59: what happens next?

The X-59 has a long way to go, although it appears to be reaching milestones in its development. Regulators can be stingy and will seek not only to mitigate noise, but also to ensure flight safety.

The X-59 will have to prove itself by passing further ground tests at Skunk Works, and then successfully complete its first flight. The plane is in good hands with some of the best engineers in the business, so one day you might be able to fly across the country or across the oceans in half the time.

Now as 1945 Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. EastwoodPhD, is the author of Humans, Machines and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an emerging threat expert and former US Army infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

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