NASA’s aeronautical innovators are leading a government-industry team to collect data that could make supersonic flight over land possible, dramatically reducing travel time in the United States or anywhere in the world.
The Low-boom Flight Demonstration mission has two goals: 1) design and build a piloted, large-scale supersonic X-plane with technology that reduces the loudness of a sonic boom to that of a gentle thump; and 2) fly the X-plane over select U.S. communities to gather data on human responses to the low-boom flights and deliver that data set to U.S. and international regulators.
Using this data, new sound-based rules regarding supersonic flight over land can be written and adopted, which would open the doors to new commercial cargo and passenger markets to provide faster-than-sound air travel.
Elements of NASA’s Low-boom mission are organized within two of the agency’s aeronautics programs — the Advanced Air Vehicles Program and the Integrated Aviation Systems Program — and managed by a systems project office whose members span both programs and all four of NASA’s aeronautical research field centers: Langley Research Center in Virginia; Glenn Research Center in Cleveland; and Ames Research Center and Armstrong Flight Research Center, both located in California.
Assembly of NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology aircraft is underway at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works in Palmdale, Calif., and is making good progress.
NASA plans as early as 2024 to fly the X-59 over select communities on missions to gather information about how the public will react to the level of quiet supersonic flight noise the aircraft is designed to produce — if they hear anything at all.
Data collected will be shared with federal and international regulators to help them set new rules that may allow supersonic flight over land and enable a whole new market for commercial faster-than-sound air travel.
“This mission is the culmination of decades of research, and with the X-59 we are continuing to pioneer a future of aviation in which we will see drastically reduced flight times for global-travelling passengers,” said Peter Coen, NASA’s Low-Boom Flight Demonstration Mission Integration Manager.
At the Skunk Works, each construction milestone brings the aircraft closer to first flight.
One of those milestones is with the X-59’s eXternal Vision System, or XVS, which is a forward-facing camera and display system that allows the pilot to see outside the aircraft via augmented reality.
The XVS is NASA’s solution to the aircraft’s lack of a forward-facing window — a result of the need to place the cockpit lower and farther back on the airplane because of its unique, elongated nose and fuselage profile.
The innovative XVS system underwent successful flight tests in August 2019 and passed several rounds of qualification testing in January 2020.
Major progress has been made on the aircraft’s wing thanks to the Skunk Works’ Combined Operation: Bolting and Robotic Auto-drill (COBRA) system. This advanced robotic technology enhances production by drilling and inspecting hundreds of holes on the wing that are part of the assembly process.
Meanwhile, pallet brackets have been installed into the airframe for the XVS and Flight Test Instrumentation Systems, marking the first installation of components supplied directly by NASA for the X-59.
Moreover, the X-59 has achieved several other milestones, including delivery of several major aircraft segments that will be installed. These include the F414-GE-100 turbofan engine from General Electric Aviation, the aircraft’s vertical tail, and the one-of-a-kind, extended-length nose.
Although production and assembly have continued at a steady pace in many areas, the development of an all new, full scale experimental aircraft is not without its challenges.
As a result, some schedule updates have been implemented.
NASA now expects the X-59’s assembly to be complete and major ground testing to begin in summer 2021, leading to a target date for first flight in summer 2022.
“The integrated NASA and Lockheed X-59 team is doing an amazing job given the challenging circumstances of COVID-19,” said NASA’s LBFD Project Manager Craig Nickol. “The team has shown remarkable resilience, and we’re excited to see the visible progress on X-59 assembly and integration every day. Although we have had some challenges in 2020, the team has responded well by updating plans and continuing to make progress.
We’re looking forward to several important milestones this year.”
These milestones include completion of manufacturing the X-59’s wing and its mating to the aircraft’s fuselage.
“We are more than half-way complete with the build of this one-of-a-kind X-plane,” said David Richardson, X-59 Program Director, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. “We will soon complete close-out of the wing, which is the central structural anchor of the aircraft, and we will then prepare for mate of the empennage, fuselage, and the distinctive, super long nose. The team has done a phenomenal job of advancing aerospace technology and working through challenges to drive progress, all of which has been enabled by our close partnership with NASA.”
None of the schedule adjustments threaten timing of the ultimate goal of delivering results of the community overflights to the International Civil Aviation Organization and Federal Aviation Administration in 2027.
With that information in hand, regulators will be able to decide if a change should be made in rules that prohibit supersonic flight over land — a decision that would be expected in 2028.
Before then, however, and even as the X-59 aircraft is under construction, other teams of NASA’s aeronautical innovators are preparing for their roles in what NASA calls the Low-Boom Flight Demonstration mission.
Once the X-59 begins flying, it will be important to validate that it is capable of producing supersonic shockwaves that will lead to quiet thumps in place of loud sonic booms. This will require tools for shock wave visualization, in-flight pressure measurement, and acoustic validation — technologies which are continuing preparation and testing at NASA, both on the ground and in the air.
These acoustic validation flights are targeted for 2023.
At the same time, critical planning and preparation for the community overflights continues — flights that are expected to begin in late 2024. The effort is taking advantage of lessons learned from a flight series that took place over Galveston, Texas, in 2018.
Taken together, this mission work is spread across three projects within NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. They include the Commercial Supersonic Technology project managed out of NASA’s Langley Research Center, the Flight Demonstrations and Capabilities project managed out of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, and the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator project, responsible for the X-59 aircraft itself, managed out of Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The X-59’s mission to provide regulators with data that may open the future to supersonic flight over land, drastically reducing flight times, is the culmination of decades of NASA supersonic research. While the challenge is there, NASA, as it always has, is pioneering the future of flight through the first “A” in its name — Aeronautics.