Supersonic air travel has long captivated the imagination, conjuring images of faster-than-sound journeys that can connect people and places in a fraction of the time. But the loud, disruptive sonic booms generated by supersonic aircraft have also served as an enduring barrier to realizing this vision.
On Friday, NASA and Lockheed Martin unveiled an experimental aircraft that could help change that. Known as the X-59, this sleek new jet aims to be the first to fly supersonically over land without producing the startling booms that led to bans on overland supersonic flight decades ago.
Through the X-59, NASA intends to demonstrate a breakthrough in supersonic technology. By gathering data on the sound the aircraft generates in flight, the agency hopes to pave the way for new regulations that allow commercial supersonic travel to resume. This could open an era of faster, quieter air travel that brings people and places closer together.
“The X-59 represents a tremendous accomplishment that was only possible through the creativity and hard work of the NASA and Lockheed Martin teams,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy at Friday’s rollout ceremony. “In just a few years, we’ve gone from concept to completed aircraft. When the X-59 takes to the skies, it will help usher in new possibilities for commercial travel that will benefit airlines and passengers worldwide.”
A key focus of the X-59 test program, called Quesst, will be evaluating what’s known as the “sonic thump.” While the aircraft travels at speeds up to 940 mph, just under twice the speed of sound, its cutting-edge design will prevent the usual sonic booms produced by supersonic aircraft. Instead, it’s expected to generate a gentler thump at ground level.
NASA researchers will fly the X-59 over selected cities and survey residents to understand how they perceive these quieter sounds. The resulting community response data will support NASA’s plans to turn over findings to regulators, both in the U.S. and internationally, who can then consider updating rules to allow supersonic flights over land.
“Quesst represents an ambitious vision for the future of air travel,” said Bob Pearce, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics. “By sharing the data on quiet overland supersonic flight with the FAA and global regulators, our goal is to open new commercial supersonic markets that will benefit the U.S. aviation industry and air travelers worldwide.”
The rollout marked a transition for the X-59 project from design and manufacturing into an active flight test program. Over the coming months, the team will begin critical pre-flight activities including integrated systems checks, engine runs and taxi tests. The first flight of the X-59 is slated for later this year.
John Clark, a Lockheed Martin vice president overseeing the project, lauded his team and NASA partners for their work bringing the aircraft to fruition. “Across both groups, we have top engineering talent focused on enabling a new era in quiet supersonic travel. We’re honored to collaborate with NASA on this innovative program that can shape the future of aviation.”
To achieve its quiet supersonic abilities, the X-59 leverages a range of aerodynamic technologies and design features. At nearly 100 feet long but just 30 feet wide, the aircraft employs a uniquely elongated narrow fuselage to limit the noise generated in flight. Advanced materials and wing shaping further enhance the jet’s sound-reducing capabilities.
The X-59’s engines mount on top of the fuselage to prevent shockwaves from merging together under the wings and creating sonic booms. The jet’s smooth, rounded surfaces also help avoid shockwave noise. And the cockpit itself provides no forward visibility – instead, pilots will rely on an advanced camera system called eXternal Vision to monitor the view ahead.
Importantly, the X-59 is an experimental concept aircraft, not a prototype for near-term commercial development. The data NASA gathers from its community overflights will shape regulations to enable new faster, quieter supersonic travel options. But the X-59 itself will not go into production.
Friday’s rollout kicks off an eager period of testing for NASA’s Quesst team and flight crews. Months of preparation lie ahead before the X-59 finally takes to the skies on a mission that, after years of development, now seems tantalizingly close at hand. The realization of routine, quiet supersonic travel still remains years away. But with the X-59 soon to fly, its disruptive sonic booms giving way to soft thumps, the promise of connecting people and cultures faster than ever before appears one leap closer.