NASA's quiet supersonic X-59 now has a jet engine

The first flight is likely in 2023.
Ameya Paleja
Lockheed Martin's X-59 aircraft
Lockheed Martin's X-59 aircraft

Lockheed Martin 

The jet engine for NASA's ambitious X-59 aircraft that will demonstrate the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) has now been installed, the space agency said in a press release.

NASA has teamed up with Lockheed Martin and General Electric Aviation to bring this ambitious plan to reality that could one day revive supersonic travel for the general public. While fighter aircraft can routinely fly at speeds much higher than sound speed, commercial airliners flying over populated areas cannot do the same.

The reason is the sonic boom, the shockwaves created by an object traveling faster than the sound, which has enough energy to shatter windows and sound like thunderclaps to the human ear. The now-defunct Concorde flights faced the same problem two decades ago and could never truly unlock the full potential of supersonic flight.

NASA aims for a quieter sonic boom

Lockheed Martin began working on the X-59 after it was awarded a preliminary design contract in 2016, which, after the review, was extended to a $247.5 million build and delivery contract in 2018.

The plane being built is 94 feet (29 m) long and has a wingspan of 29.5 feet (9 m). Like the Concorde aircraft, the aircraft design has a long and pointed nose cone that will obstruct forward vision, which will be compensated by an enhanced flight vision system, likely consisting of 4K cameras.

The Lockheed Martin-designed aircraft will look to deliver 75 Perceived Level decibels (PLdB) on the ground, which is far lesser than the 105-110 PLdB of the Concorde. For those around the aircraft, the sound of the boom would be no louder than the thump sound of a car door.

NASA's quiet supersonic X-59 now has a jet engine
The GE engine being installed

The monumental task of delivering high travel speeds with low noise emissions has been assigned to General Electric Aviation, which recently installed its F414-GE-100 engine on the X-59 earlier this month. The press release added that the 13-foot (3.9 m) long engine would generate 22,000 pounds of thrust, paving the way for the X-59 to travel at Mach 1.4 at altitudes of 55,000 feet (16764 m).

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Last hope for supersonic travel?

NASA's X-59 is a critical project for reviving supersonic travel for commercial airlines. Denver, Colorado-based Boom Supersonic is a private enterprise looking to bring back supersonic travel. However, Interesting Engineering reported in September that the company was finding it difficult to find engine partners in its attempt.

At a time when the airline industry is facing flak for its high carbon emissions, engine manufacturers are focused on improving the fuel efficiency of its pipeline rather than powering them to supersonic speeds.

In such a scenario, NASA's attempt that has come this far might be our only hope for reviving supersonic travel. The X-59 aircraft, which was earlier scheduled to take the first flight in 2022, still needs to undergo a series of ground tests, meaning we might only see it airborne in 2023.

If things go as per plan, NASA plans to conduct test flights over communities in the U.S. by 2025, following which the data and technology to revive supersonic travel with quiet sonic booms will be available.

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