“Son of Concorde” May be Coming From NASA

Credit: NASA

According to Space.Com, the 2018 NASA budget shows some exciting sneak peaks at what’s around the corner. While the ISS and many other programs are getting cut because Trump hates science, the administration also suggested that it intends to fund the development of a super quiet, potentially hypersonic airplane.

Hypersonic cruising speeds have been sort of the holy grail of commercial flight for decades. The Concorde got close-ish, able to crank all the way up to 1350 miles per hour. Unfortunately, the Concorde also had its fair share of issues — including tremendous fuel costs and that pesky sonic boom.

NASA’s new project is essentially a testing platform for ultra high-tech materials that would later be adapted to commercial flight. With that, one of the top goals is to find a way to cut the sonic boom so that these planes could fly near heavily populated areas without causing all the glass within a few miles to rattle and shatter.

Sonic booms are a major engineering challenge. For years, controlled supersonic flight was thought to be impossible. That’s because airplanes that top the speedometer essentially catch up to their own sound waves. In short order, these waves align and create a powerful burst of energy that we experience as that characteristic boom.

Lockheed Martin, a longtime NASA contractor has been given the basic contract. And the intention is to bring the boom strength down to a point that’s only a little louder than a normal conversation you might have in a sparse restaurant.

In a statement, NASA said that it hopes to have an aircraft “so quiet it hardly will be noticed by the public, if at all … like distant thunder, the sound of your neighbor forcefully shutting his car door outside while you are inside.”

Accomplishing that won’t be easy, but the hope is that with advanced new materials and novel engine placement. Many similar craft (including some from NASA) have been experimenting with alternate engine placement, but this proposal would have the turbines sitting above the fuselage and angled upwards, essentially nudging the boom up and away from the people on the ground.

With test flights starting in the early 2020s, we probably won’t see this tech maturing for a few years yet, but it offers an exciting vision of the possibilities of flight in the 2030s, and I’m here for it.   

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