NASA’s Experimental X-59 “Quiet” Supersonic Aircraft Moves One Step Closer to Flight


Welcome to this week’s Intelligence Brief… on Wednesday, NASA announced that its mission to deliver quiet supersonic flight to commercial aviation saw significant advancements as its experimental X-59 moves toward verification of airworthiness. We’ll be taking a look at 1) the latest developments with the supersonic aircraft as it moves toward its testing phase, 2) how NASA’s Quesst mission aims to revitalize the long-dormant commercial component of overland supersonic flight, and 3) what will be required as the X-59 undergoes some of its most significant assessments yet.

Quote of the Week

“None of these systems have ever worked and played together before. It’s a brand-new thing that we are developing, even though they’re components that have been on different legacy aircraft.”

– Brad Neal, X-59 Airworthiness and Flight Safety Review board chairman

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Now, it’s time to examine NASA’s efforts to bring quiet supersonic flight to commercial aviation as its groundbreaking experimental aircraft approaches one of its most crucial challenges yet.

NASA’s X-59 Moves Closer to Taking Flight

This week, NASA reported the completion of a milestone review that will enable its supersonic X-59 “quiet” aircraft to move toward flight.

The Lockheed Martin X-59 Quesst, produced by the aerospace giant’s famous Skunk Works, is an experimental aircraft built for NASA’s Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator project. The aircraft, which NASA hopes will revolutionize air travel by reintroducing commercial airplanes capable of exceeding the speed of sound, was officially unveiled earlier this year.

Artist’s concept of the NASA X-59 in flight (Credit: NASA).

On Wednesday, the American space agency announced that a Flight Readiness Review board had finished studying the X-59 project team’s safety protocols for staff and the public before ground and flight tests, marking the first phase in the aircraft’s flight approval process.

NASA’s Quesst Mission

The X-59 is the flagship of NASA’s Quesst mission, which aims to produce supersonic aircraft with a quieter “thump.”

At just under 100 feet in length and around 30 feet in width, the X-59 represents the future of 21st-century quiet supersonic aircraft design. Nearly a third of the aircraft’s overall length comprises its elongated nose, a key design feature that allows the X-59 to disrupt the shock waves that typically cause sonic booms that occur during supersonic flight. Existing regulations prohibiting overland supersonic flight stem from flights of the Supersonic Transport Concorde close to half a century ago.

Skunk Works
Early images of the experimental X-59 at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works facilities (NASA).

At the X-59’s official unveiling in January, Bob Pearce, associate administrator for aeronautics research at NASA Headquarters, said NASA plans to “share the data and technology we generate from this one-of-a-kind mission with regulators and with industry,” and will “seek to open new commercial markets for U.S. companies and benefit travelers around the world.”

Airworthiness of America’s “Quiet” Supersonic Aircraft

During its recent Flight Readiness Review, the X-59 team’s work underwent assessment and review, during which the team presented a progress update in advance of the Airworthiness and Flight Safety Review, which will involve senior leaders from both NASA and the X-59’s builders at Lockheed Martin.

During this stage of evaluation, the NASA and Lockheed Martin reviewers will examine the X-59 team’s current findings and responses, which will serve as crucial factors in receipt of the aircraft’s airworthiness certificate. Lastly, a technical brief on the various experimental objectives, methods, risks, and mitigation plans will also be presented.

Lockheed Martin and NASA personnel inspect the X-59 (Credit: Steve Freeman/NASA).

Prior to flight, the X-59 team will also be required to address any issues that arise during the evaluation period prior to the signing of its official flight request. Currently, several tasks remain to be completed, and the X-59 team is preparing for ground tests that will also mark an important phase in the aircraft’s testing and evaluation, where engine performance will be assessed, as well as any potential for electromagnetic interference.

“It’s really an exciting time on the project,” said Cathy Bahm, NASA’s Low Boom Flight Demonstrator project manager, in a statement this week.

“It’s not an easy road, but there’s a finite set of activities that are in front of us.”

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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