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NASA awards Lockheed Martin team $20M for preliminary design work on new quiet supersonic passenger aircraft

NASA has awarded a contract for the preliminary design of a quiet, “low boom” supersonic flight demonstration aircraft—the first in a new series of ‘X-planes’ in NASA’s New Aviation Horizons initiative, introduced in the agency’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget. The 10-year New Aviation Horizons initiative has the goals of reducing fuel use, emissions and noise through innovations in aircraft design that departs from the conventional tube-and-wing aircraft shape.

NASA selected a team led by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company to complete a preliminary design for Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST). Lockheed Martin will receive about $20 million over 17 months for QueSST preliminary design work. The Lockheed Martin team includes subcontractors GE Aviation and Tri Models Inc.. The work will be conducted under a task order against the Basic and Applied Aerospace Research and Technology (BAART) contract at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

NASA’s recent focus on supersonic research testing began in November 2010 as part of the project’s Experimental Systems Validations for N+2 Supersonic Commercial Transport Aircraft effort.

In 2014, Peter Coen, manager of NASA’s High Speed Project with the agency’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s Fundamental Aeronautics Program, observed that “There are three barriers particular to civil supersonic flight; sonic boom, high altitude emissions and airport noise. Of the three, boom is the most significant problem.”

Research by NASA, the military and the aircraft industry has determined that a variety of factors, from the shape and position of aircraft components to the propulsion system’s characteristics, determine the make-up of a supersonic aircraft’s sonic boom. Therefore, engineers are able to tune or “shape” a boom signature through design to minimize the loudness of the boom it produces in flight.

Artist’s concept of a possible Low Boom Flight Demonstration Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) X-plane design. Source: Lockheed Martin. Click to enlarge.

NASA is working hard to make flight greener, safer and quieter—all while developing aircraft that travel faster, and building an aviation system that operates more efficiently. To that end, it’s worth noting that it’s been almost 70 years since Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 as part of our predecessor agency’s high speed research. Now we’re continuing that supersonic X-plane legacy with this preliminary design award for a quieter supersonic jet with an aim toward passenger flight.

—NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

In 2015, NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology Project awarded eight studies more than $2.3 million in funding for research to address sonic booms and high-altitude emissions from supersonic jets. These awards were:

  • Global Environmental Impact of Supersonic Cruise Aircraft in the Stratosphere; $1.2 million over four years to MIT

  • The Influence of Turbulence on Shaped Sonic Booms; $1.2 million over three years to Wyle Laboratories

  • Sonic Boom Display; $698,000 to Rockwell Collins

  • Pilot Interface for Mitigating Sonic Boom; $686,000 over two years to Honeywell

  • Quiet Nozzle Concepts for Low Boom Aircraft; $575,000 over two years to University of California, Irvine

  • Evaluation of Low Noise Integration Concepts and Propulsion Technologies for Future Supersonic Civil Transports; $599,000 over two years to GE Global Research

  • Waveforms and Sonic Boom Perception and Response Risk Reduction; $337,000 for one year to Applied Physical Sciences

  • Risk Reduction for Future Community Testing with a Low-Boom Flight Demonstration Vehicle; $393,000 over one year to Fidell Associates

NASA and its partners have made advances toward sonic boom reduction with the development and validation of new boom-reduction aircraft shaping tools, wind tunnel testing and flight experiments. Acoustic studies conducted in laboratories and in-flight tests using special maneuvers have indicated that the boom levels that can now be achieved may produce little or no disturbance to communities.

After conducting feasibility studies and working to better understand acceptable sound levels across the country, NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology Project asked industry teams to submit design concepts for a piloted test aircraft that can fly at supersonic speeds but create a soft thump rather than the disruptive boom currently associated with supersonic flight.

Developing, building and flight testing a quiet supersonic X-plane is the next logical step in our path to enabling the industry’s decision to open supersonic travel for the flying public.

—Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission

The company will develop baseline aircraft requirements and a preliminary aircraft design, with specifications, and provide supporting documentation for concept formulation and planning. This documentation would be used to prepare for the detailed design, building and testing of the QueSST jet. Performance of this preliminary design also must undergo analytical and wind tunnel validation.

In addition to design and building, this Low Boom Flight Demonstration (LBFD) phase of the project also will include validation of community response to the new, quieter supersonic design. The detailed design and building of the QueSST aircraft, conducted under the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s Integrated Aviation Systems Program, will fall under a future contract competition.

The New Aviation Horizons X-planes will typically be about half-scale of a production aircraft and likely are to be piloted. Design-and-build will take several years with aircraft starting their flight campaign around 2020, depending on funding.


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