NASA is developing a quiet supersonic passenger jet for overland flights

| 8 comments

NASA has unveiled a conceptual design for a supersonic plane that would be much quieter than Concorde.

The image released by the United States space agency shows a long, slim craft with a pointed nose and curved wings at the rear of the plane.

Aircraft designers and operators have long pursued the idea of flying faster than the speed of sound. But commercial supersonic flight ended when the iconic Concorde aircraft went out of service in 2003, which NASA hopes to change with the new quiet aircraft.

One of the challenges Concorde faced was the noise created by its sonic boom, which occurred when travelling faster than 1234.8 over kilometres per hour – the speed of sound.



These booms were so loud that most overland flight paths were banned, severely limiting the plane's viability.

NASA and aerospace company Lockheed Martin Aeronautics hope to replace the loud boom with a softer, rhythmic thumping sound that will be significantly quieter and therefore allow for overland flights.

The agency has contracted Lockheed Martin to further develop the preliminary design and create baseline requirements for the plane's performance, carrying capacity, noise levels, and other criteria against which a prototype plane will be tested.

NASA supersonic plane

Over the next 17 months, the company will work with GE Aviation and Tri Models Inc develop the design before proceeding with analytical and wind testing. If all goes well, a commercial flight-ready craft could be in service by 2020.

The project is the first in a series of super fast so-called X-planes that the agency hopes to support, bolstering the aerospace industry in the US.

"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," said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden.

"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," he added.

Other recent developments in flight include a new luxury line of personal aircraft from Cobalt and the return of Virgin Galactic space flight testing.

  • kim

    This plane looks so much like the Espadon from a very famous French/Belgium comic book from the 60s.

  • James

    There’s a little more science to this than seems to be conveyed in the article:

    1. Anything travelling at past the speed of sound and through air develops a shockwave.

    2. Previously, the signature of the shockwave was very abrupt and had a characteristic N-shaped pattern, leading to a characteristic, and very loud, sonic boom.

    3. The shape of the new aircraft, especially the very extended nose cone profile, helps to mitigate this sharp, loud shock into a series of quieter steps, like a series of thumps.

    4. The propulsion method has a part in this pressure signature, but not a huge one and nothing is powered by sonic booms.

    Finally, I’m glad NASA has done this and I think it’s a striking looking aircraft, though maybe not a beautiful one. It probably deserved a little more care in the write-up and the edit though.

    • John Windmuller

      Thanks for addressing that. Dezeen, you ought to rewrite the following part of the article. It’s comically muddled:

      “One of the challenges the Concorde faced was its disruptive sonic boom propulsion, which would send shock waves through the air to push the vehicle forwards at speeds over 2,000 kilometres per hour.

      These booms were so loud that most overland flight paths were banned, severely limiting the plane’s viability.

      Instead of relying on the loud sonic booms, NASA and aerospace company Lockheed Martin Aeronautics hope to perfect a rhythmic, repetitive thump propulsion that will be significantly quieter and therefore allow for overland flights.”

  • Steve Hopkinson

    “One of the challenges the Concorde faced was its disruptive sonic boom propulsion, which would send shock waves through the air to push the vehicle forwards at speeds over 2,000 kilometres per hour.”

    That’s really, really not how it works. The sonic boom is a side effect of breaking the sound barrier, not the means of propulsion. This design minimises the boom produced when flying at transonic speeds.

    • Hi Steve, thanks for pointing this out. We’ve amended the text to make it clearer.

  • rob

    The plane is suffering from a Pinocchio syndrome. Its nose is significantly larger on the second image; who’s lying here?

  • auskiwi

    There doesn’t seem to be much room in there for passengers, or windows for them to look out from. Will they use video cameras and screens to provide a view for the passengers?

    Perhaps the idea is to provide greater structural strength and better aerodynamics by eliminating the passenger windows? Also, not sure what the scale is, but it looks smaller than Concorde, so would it be economic if it only carried say 50-100 passengers?

    • Jimmy Thornton

      I think this is more of a proof of concept for the propulsion system and aerodynamics rather than a prototype passenger jet. Once they work out how to minimise the sonic booms, they’ll likely apply that to a larger vehicle.