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NASA’s X-59 Quiet Supersonic Jet Approved For Construction

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NASA's X-59 Quiet Supersonic Jet Approved For Construction

Illustrative image of the X-59. Click to see full-size image

The X-59 QueSST silent supersonic airplane was cleared for final assembly, NASA announced on December 16th.

It is NASA’s first large scale, piloted X-plane in more than 30 years and it was cleared to be constructed, as well as its systems to be integrated following a major project review by senior management.

The management review was called Key Decision Point-D (KDP-D) was the last hurdle for the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft to clear before officials met again in late 2020 to approve its first flight in 2021.

“With the completion of KDP-D we’ve shown the project is on schedule, it’s well planned and on track. We have everything in place to continue this historic research mission for the nation’s air-travelling public,” Bob Pearce, NASA’s associate administrator for Aeronautics.

The X-59 is shaped to reduce the loudness of a sonic boom to something that can barely be heard. It will be flown above select US communities to generate data from sensors and people on the ground in order to gouge if whether the public heard the plane.

In turn, that gathered data would allow regulators to establish new rules and to enable commercial supersonic air travel over land.

Construction of the X-59 is continuing at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company’s Skunk Works factory in Palmdale, California. The contract is worth $247.5 million cost-plus-incentive-fee.

The factory has three major work areas set up to build the airplane’s main fuselage, wing and empennage. The final assembly and integration of the QueSST is planned for late 2020. It will include an innovative cockpit – eXternal Visibility System (XVS). The XVS is a forward-facing camera and display system for the X-59 pilot that shows the airspace in front. During flight, the XVS uses the processing power with custom image processing software and camera systems to create an augmented reality view of the X-59 pilot’s forward line-of-sight along with graphical flight data overlays.

“Our goal is to create an electronic means of vision for the X-59 pilot that provides performance and safety levels equivalent to or better than forward-facing windows,” said Randy Bailey, XVS subsystem lead.

In September the X-59 QueSST went through another critical project milestone – the Critical Design Review (CDR).

“The CDR showed us the design was mature enough to continue into the next phase and essentially finish the assembly,” Craig Nickol, NASA’s project manager for the X-59 said. Back then he said that the KDP-D needed to pass for everything to be in order.

During the 1960s, both the US and Europe were developing civilian supersonic transport – the SST and Concorde, respectively. The general public made it known that the sonic booms were disturbing life. In 1973, after years of research and due process, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned aircraft from flying over land at speeds higher than Mach 1, the speed of sound in order to prevent sonic booms.

The US SST program was cancelled in 1971, but the Concorde continued to fly between 1976 and 2003, but using its supersonic cruising only above the Atlantic Ocean.

Following decades of research into supersonic flight that included work in wind tunnels, testing concepts on aircraft in flight, and using supercomputers to run simulations, NASA’s aeronautical team have apparently come up with a solution.

Mostly due to the special design of the aircraft’s shape and overall configuration, the engineers have reportedly found a way to manipulate the shockwaves coming off the airplane flying at supersonic speeds, so that the sonic booms aren’t as intense as those in the 60s.

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