The X-59, an odd-looking aircraft from NASA and Lockheed Martin, is designed to break the sound barrier quietly, rather than with a bang. This year, in 2023, he will make his debut flight.

    NASA’s experimental X-59 aircraft will take to the skies in early 2023. He will try to break the sound barrier without causing a huge sonic boom. If successful, it could lead to the return of commercial jets traveling faster than the speed of sound, such as Concorde used to be.

    Outsized nose

    The X-59, which will take off from Palmdale, California, was built by Lockheed Martin but is the product of decades of research at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. It is based on numerous supercomputer simulations and supersonic wind tunnel tests.

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    The plane looks strange: it is 30 meters long and has a wingspan of only 9 meters wide. The outsized nose is striking. The pilot can only see ahead through a video camera because the nose is too pointed for a decent cockpit window.

    Impression of the X-59 in full flight Image: NASA.

    The shape is designed to reduce the sonic boom that occurs when an aircraft breaks the speed of sound in the air (343 meters per second at 20 degrees Celsius). The 105-decibel bangs produced by the Concorde can be reduced to a ‘soft thump’ of 75 decibels with the X-59. This is roughly the sound you hear when a car door is slammed 20 feet away.

    Shock waves

    The main trick to achieve this Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) is the shape of the nose. The shock waves generated on this will not merge with those of the tail. That’s why the nose is so elongated: to keep the front waves as far away from the back ones as possible. That the waves converge by the time they hit the ground is usually what causes the loud bang, he says David Richwinedeputy project manager of X-59 technology at NASA Langley.

    The first flights of the device are scheduled for early 2023. Seven to nine months later, the plane will depart for a tour of the United States, making supersonic flights over cities and rural villages. NASA will poll thousands of people to see if they find the noise level acceptable.

    Concorde

    If the noise reduction measures work, NASA hopes that aircraft manufacturers can adopt them in a new generation of supersonic aircraft. The only commercial supersonic aircraft to have flown to date were the Concorde and a competitor from the Soviet Union, the Tupolev Tu-144, both of which have been retired.

    Concorde’s success was limited because the aviation authorities did not allow it to fly overland supersonic routes. These rules were imposed because of the noise and building damage caused by the sonic booms.

    The chief engineer of the X-59, Jay Brandon, is convinced that they have solved the problem of noise and damage. “Based on all our computer models, where we projected the pressure variations from flight level to the ground, we believe we know how to do it,” he says. “We’ll see when we fly.”

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