Future of Air Travel: NASA Takes Major Step Toward Making Supersonic Commercial Flights a Reality

Commercial flights may soon be breaking the sound barrier. NASA/Lockheed Martin

The speed of sound is 761 miles per hour. When a plane eclipses this speed, it creates shock waves that emit a loud cracking sound, called a sonic boom.

In February 2016, NASA teamed up with Lockheed Martin to try to fix this pesky problem, aiming to engineer a "low boom" X-plane that would pave the way for supersonic passenger travel. The team has now confirmed that the preliminary design for the Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) is capable of breaking the sound barrier with nothing more than a muffled "thump."

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"Managing a project like this is all about moving from one milestone to the next," said preliminary design manager David Richwine. "Our strong partnership with Lockheed Martin helped get us to this point. We're now one step closer to building an actual X-plane."

Whenever the X-plane does get built, its impact will be measured with flights over U.S. cities, giving regulators a sense of what measures would need to be put in place if the technology were to be used for commercial air travel. This would involve conducting ground tests as well as surveying citizens about their reactions to the "soft thump" the X-plane will make as it breaches the sound barrier. Such tests, however, are not expected to be conducted until 2021.

In February, a 9 percent scale model of a potential X-plane was tested in high-speed wind tunnels in NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Over the course of eight weeks, the lift, drag and side forces on the model were tested at different angles and at speeds ranging from 150 to 900 miles per hour. After a successful round of testing, the team has finished its preliminary design review, concluding that the X-plane designs are capable of achieving the mission's objectives.

On Monday, NASA released a video explaining its vision for the future of supersonic travel.

"NASA has been working for decades, essentially, on looking at technologies to take the 'boom' out of 'boom,'" says Peter Coen, NASA's Commercial Supersonic Technology Project manager. "We'd like to have sonic thump or just sonic sound. The idea is to design the airplane so that the shock waves that are produced in supersonic flight are arranged in such a way that you just have a gradual pressure rise which produces a quiet sound."

"Supersonics has been a dream for a long time," Coen continues. "It would cut your travel time in half. It's a good industry for the U.S. to be getting into. Subsonic commercial airplanes are being built worldwide now. We need new vehicles to maintain our leadership in commercial aviation."