NASA starts testing tech for its “quiet” X-plane that promises supersonic flight without the boom

NASA is about to start testing quiet supersonic technology in a step towards reaching the goal of supersonic passenger travel without the ‘boom’.

The Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) is being tested for the space agency’s newest experimental aircraft, the Low Boom Flight Demonstration (LBFD) also known as the X-plane, named as such after the historic X-plane series that saw NASA break the sound barrier for the first time in 1946.

In a new photo, NASA has revealed a 15 per cent scale model of the new aircraft that will be used to conduct wind tunnel tests over the next few weeks. The aircraft, it is hoped, will take the “boom” out of supersonic boom.

Instead of a loud noise generated by shockwaves coming off the aircraft when it breaks the sound barrier, reaching a speed of 304 metres per second, the craft will be designed to create a general, gradual rise in pressure. This is expected to produce a quiet sound, rather than the boom we associate with supersonic flight.

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NASA has been partnering with Lockheed Martin on the project since February 2016, and together the companies developed the QueSST design.

 “Managing a project like this is all about moving from one milestone to the next,” said David Richwine, manager for the preliminary design effort under NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology Project. “Our strong partnership with Lockheed Martin helped get us to this point. We’re now one step closer to building an actual X-plane.”

One of the main goals of the project is to make the planes environmentally friendly, meaning they will be quiet and produce low emissions. 

In 2015, making use of a photography technique developed by German physicist August Toepler in 1864, NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center started using schlieren imagery to capture images of shock waves.

Schlieren imaging reveals shock waves by observing the change in air density around the shock wave, which refracts light in a different way. 

Using full-scale aircraft in flight, rather than in a wind tunnel, the NASA teams are hoping to gain a clear understanding of the location and strength of shock waves to aid the design of future high-speed commercial planes.

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