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The SCENE Magazine

Area Plays Role in Development of NASA’s Newest X-plane (X-59)

Dec 18, 2018 07:47PM
NASA is developing the next X-plane, and last month our area was Ground Zero as NASA personnel from the Armstrong Flight Research Center (California), the Langley Research Center (Virginia) and NASA Headquarters (Washington DC) all converged at Ellington Airport for a series of quiet supersonic research flights off the coast of the Galveston.

NASA test pilots flew NASA F/A-18 supersonic research aircraft in a unique maneuver that creates a quieter “thump” as part of the Quiet Supersonic Flights 2018, or QSF18, campaign.
QSF18 is a critical step in NASA’s Low-Boom Flight Demonstration, a comprehensive, scientifically-driven effort to provide U.S. and international regulators with statistically valid data that could result in new rules that allow commercial supersonic flight over land.   Normally, an aircraft flying at supersonic speeds (faster than Mach 1, the speed of sound) produces a sonic boom so loud that, today, commercial supersonic flight is prohibited over land. 

Creating a supersonic aircraft that doesn't produce sonic booms would be a game-changer for aviation. Before being taken out of service in 2003, the Concorde's speed was restricted over certain land routes because of disruptive sound waves.
Enter NASA's newest X-plane, the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology X-plane, or QueSST, aimed at providing crucial data making supersonic flight more economical and enable commercial supersonic passenger air travel over land. 

The X-planes are a series of experimental aircraft and rockets, used to test and evaluate new technologies and aerodynamic concepts. They have an X designator, which indicates the research mission. The X-1 dates back to 1946 and became the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight with Chuck Yeager at the controls in 1947. See the list of notable X-planes on the opposite page to learn more about the X-plane program.

The X-59 marks the first time in decades that NASA aeronautics is moving forward with the construction of a piloted X-plane. This one will be designed from scratch to fly faster than sound with the latest in quiet supersonic technologies. Earlier this year NASA awarded a $247.5 million contract to Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company to build the X-plane and deliver it to the agency’s Armstrong Flight Research Center by the end of 2021.

But before the X-59 can be built, NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Flight Operations were called on last month to provide critical support for a NASA activity (QSF18) centered around about flight, even if not spaceflight in this case.

“NASA’s role as a leader into new frontiers paves the way forward towards new technologies, opportunities, and milestones across multiple endeavors, as we have always done throughout our history,” explained Mark Geyer, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “As our efforts also continue to expand our boundaries and capabilities in space, Johnson Space Center is proud to be working with our colleagues at NASA’s research centers at Langley and Armstrong, and to take part in the agency’s aeronautics research efforts to lead aviation into a new era as ‘One NASA.’”

The goal of last month’s experiments centered around capturing how people and sensors on the ground responded to the quieter  supersonic “thumps” made by NASA test pilots. 

“This is a big step in NASA’s efforts to understand what is required for acceptable supersonic overland flight,” said NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology Project Manager Peter Coen.

“This is the first time in decades that we have reached out to a large community as part of our supersonic research. NASA has performed similar tests at our Armstrong Flight Research Center, using similar sounds created by the same F/A-18s. We’ve measured the noise levels and the impact on structures, as well as surveyed people for annoyance, to make certain that these tests are safe and well-planned. We greatly appreciate Galveston’s interest and support.”

In Galveston, community feedback data was gathered through the use of a survey, in which 500 recruited volunteer residents participated and defined the level at which they were able to perceive the sound. NASA researchers also used sound-measuring equipment in and around Galveston to supplement the public response data. QSF18 data will be used to help NASA better understand successful data collection methods for future flights using the X-59.     

- John Ennis