NASA's X-59 'Son of Concorde' gearing up for first test flight

According to statements and images shared by NASA, its experimental X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) plane could perform test flights later this year.
Christopher McFadden
Artist's impression of the X-59.

Lockheed Martin Corporation/Wikimedia Commons 

Dubbed the "Son of Concorde," NASA's experimental X-59 is almost ready for its first test flights later this year. Formerly called the  X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) plane, the aircraft could usher in a new era of supersonic mass transportation.

This news comes after a few images were shared by NASA showing the X-59 sitting on the "flight line" (the space between the hangar and the runway) at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale, California.

The X-59 can fly at Mach 1.4

The X-59 project was initiated in 2016 to enable flight at 55,000 feet (16,765 meters) and a cruising speed of Mach 1.42 (937 mph/1,508 kph) - nearly twice the speed of a standard passenger jet. Such high speeds will significantly reduce flight durations between destinations. What's more, it can do all this while only producing sounds about as loud as a "car door closing."

To date, the fastest Concorde flight between New York City and London took only 2 hours and 53 minutes, less than half the time it takes a subsonic passenger jet. The implications are noteworthy, as a supersonic flight from New York City to Los Angeles that currently takes around 5 hours and 30 minutes could be reduced to about 2 hours and 30 minutes or even less. However, a mixture of noise pollution, running costs, and high-profile accidents ultimately doomed this incredible aircraft.

The X-59 aircraft is testing a technology that aims to dampen the loud sound of the sonic boom when breaking the sound barrier. By reducing the noise to a more subdued "sonic thump," this technology could allow supersonic passenger flights over the continental US, previously prohibited due to noise pollution regulations.

NASA announced this week that the X-59 had been relocated from the construction site to the flight line, marking a significant milestone in preparation for its first and subsequent flights. The team will proceed with a series of crucial ground tests to ensure the aircraft is fully prepared for its maiden flight.

NASA will conduct a test flight of the X-59 at supersonic speed across different communities to gauge their response to the sonic thump created during the high-speed flight. The test results will be shared with US and international regulators, which may pave the way for commercial supersonic flights over land.

Supersonic airliners to return?

"The X-59 will be used to collect community response data on the acceptability of a quiet sonic boom generated by the unique design of the aircraft. The data will help NASA provide regulators with the information needed to establish an acceptable commercial supersonic noise standard to lift the ban on commercial supersonic travel over land," explains Lockheed Martin. "This breakthrough would open the door to an entirely new global market for aircraft manufacturers, enabling passengers to travel anywhere in the world in half the time it takes today," they add.

The X-59 has the potential to create numerous faster routes, not only within the United States but also globally. However, the affordability of a seat remains uncertain.

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