NASA funds new supersonic airliner research

Plans to break the sound barrier with a steady thump rather than a nasty boom

NASA Supersonic Concept
A whisper, not a bang. Lockheed Martin's artist impression of QueSST, supersonic without the boom

NASA has slung a bit of spare change at Lockheed Martin to lead preliminary design work for a mooted supersonic airliner.

The US$20 million the agency has set aside for the project – which will be shared with subcontractors GE Aviation and Tri Models – won't get anything off the ground, but it will at least let boffins and engineers get as far as early wind tunnel work.

What NASA wants, eventually, is to take the world back into the era of civilian supersonic flight, something that hasn't existed since the Concorde was retired in 2003, three years after the ill-fated Air France Flight 4590.

The big difference to Concorde is that the QueSST – Quiet Super Sonic Technology – project has, as a design aim, the elimination of the “sonic boom”. To that end, the agency's Commercial Supersonic Technology Project had asked industry to submit designs for a test aircraft that instead made what it calls a supersonic “heartbeat” – “a soft thump rather than the disruptive boom currently associated with supersonic flight.”

The project is the first in NASA's New Aviation Horizons X-planes project, which was approved in its 2017 budget.

NASA's announcement says the Lockheed Martin-led team will develop baseline requirements, a preliminary design with specifications, and supporting documentation for “concept formulation and planning”.

“Performance of this preliminary design also must undergo analytical and wind tunnel validation”, the announcement notes.

In general, the X-planes projects will deliver half-scale, piloted demonstrator craft. Advancing past such prototypes would depend on further funding, starting from the year 2020. ®

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