Shushing Sonic Booms: NASA’s Supersonic X-Plane to Take Flight in 2021

The history of aviation is full of notable X-Planes, a number of which heralded in new generations of flight. The Bell X-1 became the first aircraft to break the speed of sound during level flight in 1947 with the legendary Charles “Chuck” Yeager at the controls. A few years later the X-2 would push man up to Mach 3, refining our understanding of supersonic flight. In the 1960’s, the North American built X-15 would not only take us to the edge of space, but set a world speed record which remains unbroken.

Compared to the heady post-war days when it seemed the sky was quite literally the limit, X-Planes in the modern era have become more utilitarian in nature. They are often proposed but never built, and if they do get built, the trend has been towards unmanned subscale vehicles due to their lower cost and risk. The few full-scale piloted X-Planes of the 21st century have largely been prototypes for new military fighter jets rather than scientific research aircraft.

But thanks to a commitment from NASA, the Lockheed Martin X-59 might finally break that trend and become another historic vehicle worthy of the X-Plane lineage. Construction has already begun on the X-59, and the program has recently passed a rigorous design and timeline overview by NASA officials which confirmed the agency’s intent to financially and logistically support the development of the aircraft through their Low Boom Flight Demonstrator initiative. If successful, the X-59 will not only help refine the technology for the next generation of commercial supersonic aircraft, but potentially help change the laws which have prevented such aircraft from operating over land in the United States since 1973.

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GE’s Engine to Reignite Civil Supersonic Flight

On October 24th, 2003 the last Concorde touched down at Filton Airport in England, and since then commercial air travel has been stuck moving slower than the speed of sound. There were a number of reasons for retiring the Concorde, from the rising cost of fuel to bad publicity following a crash in 2000 which claimed the lives of all passengers and crew aboard. Flying on Concorde was also exceptionally expensive and only practical on certain routes, as concerns about sonic booms over land meant it had to remain subsonic unless it was flying over the ocean.

The failure of the Concorde has kept manufacturers and the civil aviation industry from investing in a new supersonic aircraft for fifteen years now. It’s a rare example of commercial technology going “backwards”; the latest and greatest airliners built today can’t achieve even half the Concorde’s top speed of 1,354 MPH (2,179 km/h). In an era where speed and performance is an obsession, commercial air travel simply hasn’t kept up with the pace of the world around it. There’s a fortune to be made for anyone who can figure out a way to offer supersonic flight for passengers and cargo without falling into the same traps that ended the Concorde program.

With the announcement that they’ve completed the initial design of their new Affinity engine, General Electric is looking to answer that call. Combining GE’s experience developing high performance fighter jet engines with the latest efficiency improvements from their civilian engines, Affinity is the first new supersonic engine designed for the civil aviation market in fifty five years. It’s not slated to fly before 2023, and likely won’t see commercial use for a few years after that, but this is an important first step in getting air travel to catch up with the rest of our modern lives.

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Retrotechtacular: Supersonic Transport Initiatives

In the early days of PBS member station WGBH-Boston, they in conjunction with MIT produced a program called Science Reporter. The program’s aim was explaining modern technological advances to a wide audience through the use of interviews and demonstrations. This week, we have a 1966 episode called “Ticket Through the Sound Barrier”, which outlines the then-current state of supersonic transport (SST) initiatives being undertaken by NASA.

MIT reporter and basso profondo [John Fitch] opens the program at NASA’s Ames research center. Here, he outlines the three major considerations of the SST initiative. First, the aluminium typically used in subsonic aircraft fuselage cannot withstand the extreme temperatures caused by air friction at supersonic speeds. Although the Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde was skinned in aluminium, it was limited to Mach 2.02 because of heating issues. In place of aluminium, a titanium alloy with a melting point of 3,000°F is being developed and tested.

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