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Artist’s concept of a possible Low Boom Flight Demonstration Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) X-plane design. The award of a preliminary design contract is the first step toward the possible return of supersonic passenger travel–but quieter and more affordable. (Lockheed Martin)

NASA takes a respectable-sized step toward supersonic flight

Research on supersonic flight has quietly been infiltrating the desks of a variety of engineering work stations, verified by NASA's recent contract award for the preliminary design of a flight demonstration aircraft with a low boom profile. This is the first in a series of X-planes in NASA's New Aviation Horizons initiative, introduced in the agency’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget.

“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,”  NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said recently. “It’s worth noting that it's been almost 70 years since Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. 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."

To that end, NASA selected a team led by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics to complete a preliminary design for Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST). 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 Virginia.

Prior to going out to industry, NASA conducted feasibility studies to better understand acceptable sound levels across the country. It then asked industry teams to submit design concepts for a piloted test aircraft that can fly at supersonic speeds, creating what it describes as a "supersonic heartbeat"—a soft thump rather than the window-shaking boom most often associated with supersonic flight.

Lockheed Martin will receive about $20 million over 17 months for QueSST preliminary design work. GE Aviation and Tri Models are also part of the team, which will develop baseline aircraft requirements and a preliminary aircraft design, with specifications, and provide supporting documentation for concept formulation and planning. This documentation will be used to prepare for the detailed design, building, and testing of the QueSST jet. Performance of the preliminary design also must undergo analytical and wind tunnel validation.

Lockheed is  not a newcomer to the study of supersonic flight, having worked on the NASA N+2 program some years ago. In that concept not only was a "totally new kind of propulsion system developed," but the company also explored "new techniques for low noise jet exhaust, integrated fan noise suppression, airframe noise suppression, and computer customized airport noise abatement," according to Micheal Buonanno, Lockheed Martin's Manager of that N+2 program.

It was his team that developed the "tools and codes that allow engineers and designers to accurately predict the loudness of a plane's sonic boom."

This initial Low Boom Flight Demonstration 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 will fall under a future contract competition.

NASA’s 10-year New Aviation Horizons initiative is built around reducing fuel use, emissions, and noise through innovations in aircraft design that departs from the conventional tube-and-wing aircraft shape. The X-planes that come out of the initiative 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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