NASA set to build an array of new X-planes

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NASA's renewed emphasis on X-planes is called "New Aviation Horizons". (AP)

NASA’s renewed emphasis on X-planes is called “New Aviation Horizons”. (AP)

NASA scientists are preparing to put in the sky an array of new X-planes or experimental aircraft – including a quiet supersonic jet – to demonstrate advanced technologies that will push back the frontiers of aviation.

Goals include showcasing how airliners can burn half the fuel and generate 75 per cent less pollution during each flight as compared to now, while also being much quieter than today’s jets – perhaps even when flying supersonic.

NASA’s renewed emphasis on X-planes is called “New Aviation Horizons”.

The plan is to design, build and fly the series of X-planes during the next 10 years as a means to accelerate the adoption of advanced green aviation technologies by industry.

“If we can build some of these X-planes and demonstrate some of these technologies, we expect that will make it much easier and faster for US industry to pick them up and roll them out into the marketplace,” said Ed Waggoner, NASA’s Integrated Aviation Systems Programme director.

Design work already has begun on QueSST, short for Quiet Supersonic Technology.

A preliminary design contract was awarded in February to a team led by US-based aerospace company Lockheed Martin. If schedule and funding holds, this new supersonic X-plane could fly in the 2020 timeframe, NASA said.

QueSST aims to fix something the X-1 first introduced to the flying world nearly 70 years ago – the loud sonic boom.

Recent research has shown it is possible for a supersonic airplane to be shaped in such a way that the shock waves it forms when flying faster than the speed of sound generate a sonic boom so quiet it hardly will be noticed by the public.

The resulting sonic “boom” has variously been described as like distant thunder, the sound of your neighbour forcefully shutting his car door outside while you are inside, or as the thump of a “supersonic” heartbeat.

“We know the concept is going to work, but now the best way to continue our research is to demonstrate the capability to the public with an X-plane,” said Peter Coen, NASA’s supersonic project manager.

“Providing that data will be a key step in bringing accessible and affordable supersonic flight to the travelling public,” Coen said.

Meanwhile, other experimental aircraft also are under consideration, including those with novel shapes that break the mold of the traditional tube and wing airplane, and others that are propelled by hybrid electric power.

Exactly what these X-planes will look like, how they will be operated and where they will be flown all have yet to be precisely defined.

Despite these future test aircraft being referred to as X-planes, it is possible only some of them will actually get an official X-plane number designation – or perhaps none of them will.

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