The Future of Air Travel (sans Ear Damage): NASA develops quiet supersonic plane, X-59 QueSST

NASA is renowned for its progressive technologies and inventions. The newest mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is to design quiet supersonic aircraft that doesn’t create ear-splitting sonic booms when breaking the sound barrier. This very idea gave birth to the X-59 QueSST project, a project that hopes federal sonic air travel laws can be rewritten. If NASA’s X-59 QueSST is successful, this will change the aviation industry and open a new era in faster-than-sound air travel over land—something that has been banned for quite some time now.

To test the sound products of sonic flight, NASA will use Supersonic F/A-18 Hornet jets that move at speeds of around Mach 1 (the speed of sound), or about 630 mph. Gravity and re-ignited afterburners help the F/A-18 to move at these impressive speeds. When in flight, air molecules start to resist the jet, which then sends dozens of tiny shockwaves in front of and behind the aircraft, thus creating two distinct shockwaves. This is where the sonic boom comes from, often reported as two successive noises. However, if the pilot goes into a dive and bottoms out at 32,000 feet (see video below), the booms then turn into quiet thumps, according to NASA. F/A-18s will be sent flying over Galveston, Texas to mimic the sonic profile of the X-59. 500 residents will be included in the experiment to document the noise levels, according to CNN. The sound tests will allow researchers to have a perceived decibel level in mind for the X-plane that they think will be acceptable to a community under its flight path.

Based on the F/A-18 simulations, NASA wants to develop the X-59, a faster-than-sound X-plane that will be equipped with quiet supersonic technologies. The X-59 will be built so that supersonic shockwaves don’t coalesce together, thus avoiding ear-splitting sonic booms. “With the X-59 you’re sill going to have multiple shockwaves because of the wings on the aircraft that create lift and the volume of the plane. But the airplane’s shape is carefully tailored such that those shockwaves don’t combine,” said Ed Haering, a NASA aerospace engineer at Armstrong.

The construction of the X-59 is being overseen by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company. “I’m confident that the contributions the X-59 QueSST will make to our nation and the world will ensure its place among the greatest NASA X-planes ever flown,” said Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics.

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