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NASA's X-59 aircraft is a first step to letting you fly supersonic

The space agency will begin final assembly on an experimental aircraft that could produce a quieter sonic boom.

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NASA's X-59 aircraft

An illustration of the X-59 shows its long, narrow fuselage.

Lockheed Martin

The quest to put supersonic passenger flights back in the sky gained a few feet in altitude Monday when NASA approved final assembly of an experimental aircraft that could redefine the sonic boom for the better. Built in partnership with Lockheed Martin and scheduled for a first flight in 2021, the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) plane -- also known as the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator -- is designed the break the sound barrier without the thunderous noise that accompanies faster-than-sound travel ever reaching the ground. 

sonic-boom
SNAPPA

Instead of a sharp double bang that can break windows and damage structures, a listener on the ground should hear a noise no louder than a car door slamming (NASA calls it a "sonic thump"). The key to dampening the boom is the LBFD's shape: A long pointed nose and sharply swept wings should ensure that the individual pressure waves created by an airplane surpassing Mach 1 never converge and cause a traditional sonic boom.

Building a quieter boom is a necessary step toward overturning regulations in the United States and other countries that prohibit supersonic booms over land. Such bans restricted the Anglo-French Concorde to flying only over the ocean between 1976 and 2001, sharply limiting its choice of viable routes. 

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Once the X-59 flies, NASA will begin test flights from California's Edwards Air Force Base to make sure the LBFD has a low boom and to gauge public response to it. Until that time, it's already evaluating "low-boom" flight using an F/A-18 aircraft over the Gulf of Mexico. During the test flights, the F/A-18 dives from almost 50,000 feet and goes briefly supersonic before leveling off at about 30,000 feet. 

Lockheed Martin and NASA are building the X-59 at Lockheed's Skunk Works facility in Palmdale, California. Skunk Works produced some of the US Air Force's most secretive aircraft, including the U-2, the F-117 Nighthawk and the SR-71 Blackbird.