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Lockheed Martin X 59 QueSST – A Quiet Supersonic Aircraft?
Why are NASA and Lockheed Martin building a quiet supersonic aircraft? What can this do for commercial aviation?

The Lockheed Martin X 59 QueSST is an American experimental supersonic aircraft being built for NASA’s Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator project. QueSST stands for ‘Quiet SuperSonic Technology’, and the X-59 will feature innovative technology to fly – quietly – faster than the speed of sound.

Supersonic aircrafts currently produces a loud sonic boom, heard on the ground as a disruptive and unsettling noise. With the X-59, NASA plans to change this. When the aircraft flies overhead, people on the ground will hear nothing more than a quiet thump – no more than the slamming of a car door. 

Peter Coen of NASA’s Langley Research Center explains, “The X-59 aircraft is equipped with unique shaping and supersonic technologies. A long slender nose, engine placement on the top of the aircraft and its External Vision System are all designed to control the strength and position of the shock waves to produce a softer sound to those on the ground.”

The QueSST Mission

The X-59 aircraft is the centrepiece of NASA’s QueSST Mission. According to the agency, the mission has two goals:

  1. In collaboration with external partners, design and build a research aircraft equipped with technology that reduces a sonic boom to a gentle thump.
  2. Fly the research aircraft over select places to gather data on human responses to the sound generated during supersonic flight and deliver that dataset to regulators.

The data aims to provide the regulators with enough information to establish an acceptable noise standard to lift the ban on commercial supersonic travel over land. 

However, although scientific measurements are important, only public reaction will carry weight with aviation regulators.

Why Build a Quiet Supersonic Aircraft?

Ultimately, the QueSST Mission seeks to open the future to commercial supersonic flight over land – currently prohibited by the FAA because of the boom caused by shockwaves produced when the aircraft breaks the sound barrier. NASA and Lockheed Martin engineers are designing the X-59 to divert the shockwaves, diminishing the boom so that only a light thump reaches anyone on the ground.  

The innovative long, narrow airframe and canards of the X-59 prevent the shock waves from coalescing. As a result, the noise heard will be about a thousand times quieter than that of current supersonic aircrafts.

Reducing flight times

The Lockheed Martin X 59 QueSST will fly at around 925 mph – around 1.4 times the speed of sound. Whereas, the typical cruising speed for a long-distance commercial aircraft is about 550 mph.

The commercial opportunity the X-59 could open up is huge. With flight times drastically reduced, passengers will be able to travel anywhere in the world in half the time it takes today, opening a new global market to aircraft manufacturers.

Milestones leading to launch

The roots of NASA’s QueSST Mission date back to1946 with the X-1, the first aircraft to travel faster than sound. Nearly 80 years on, the X-59 also aims to break the sound barrier – but do so quietly.

Preliminary designs for the Lockheed Martin X 59 QueSST began in February 2016, with the plan to deliver the X-59 to NASA in 2021 for flight testing in 2023.

March 2022 saw a successful completion of critical structural loads and fuel calibration testing. In November of the same year at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works facility in California, engineers installed the F414-GE-100 jet engine, marking a major milestone. 

The roll out and first flight of the X-59 is scheduled to take place this year. Watch this space.

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