Why NASA's new supersonic X-plane needs to beat the boom


Main image: An artist’s concept of the X-59 QueSST. Credit: Lockheed Martin

It may dramatically reduce travel time, but supersonic air travel barely exists. However, there’s now a new race to produce the first ‘Concorde’ for the 21st century, thanks to new tech that’s allowing aircraft engineers to overcome the one thing that has so far rendered supersonic air travel unworkable: the sonic boom.

Cue NASA, and its attempts to revive the ground-breaking series of experimental X-planes that stretch back to the Bell X-1 in which Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier in 1947. 

What’s a sonic boom?

We’re still flying at the same speeds first achieved in the 1960s because supersonic air travel never became affordable, right? That’s partly true, but another huge problem with the luxury airliner Concorde was its very loud sonic boom – around 130 decibels – which could be heard by anyone underneath it while it was traveling at supersonic speeds.

Image showing shockwaves around aircraft travelling at the speed of sound

Shockwaves form around aircraft traveling at the speed of sound. Credit: NASA

(Image: © NASA)

A sonic boom is a shockwave. When something travels faster than speed of sound – 717mph – shockwaves form around the nose, propagate away from the aircraft, and are heard on the ground as a sonic boom. In the case of Concorde it was actually a double sonic boom, and it’s why Concorde wasn’t allowed, by law, to fly at supersonic speeds over land; it mostly flew across the Atlantic Ocean between London/Paris and New York, and never across Europe, Asia, North America or any other landmass.

What’s NASA doing?

“The return of supersonic passenger flight has been a background operation since the grounding of the Concorde,“ says aerospace expert Paul Kostek, senior systems engineer at Base2 Solutions and a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). In fact, NASA recently struck an agreement with the French national aerospace research center ONERA to collaborate on research predicting where sonic booms will be heard as supersonic aircraft fly overhead.

Image of X-59 QueSST

The X-59 QueSST will travel at 940mph. Credit: NASA

(Image: © NASA)

“This partnership shows there is interest in supersonic travel all over the world,” says Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics. “Solving the issue of annoying sonic booms could ultimately cut travel time to worldwide destinations in half.” The aim of the research is to predict exactly where sonic booms will reach the ground.