CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — An experimental NASA aircraft designed to perform supersonic commercial travel while reducing the sound generated by sonic booms was approved for final assembly on Thursday.
The X-59, also known as the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator (LBFD), is NASA’s first experimental aircraft in three decades. Aircraft construction is taking place today at the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Skunk Works plant in Palmdale, California.
A $250-million contract awarded to Lockheed Martin in 2018 will see the aircraft built and tested during 2020. The X-59 is expected to make its inaugural flight from Edwards AFB, Calif. in 2021 to deem it is safe to fly.
Following a series of test flights, NASA will receive the aircraft in late-2021 to close out Phase one. Phase two will have a NASA test pilot first fly the X-59 to Mach 1 over the Edwards test range in 2022.
NASA research test pilot Jim Less is one of two pilots waiting in the wings to perform those first supersonic flight tests. “A supersonic manned X-plane,” Less said during a NASA interview. “This is probably going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. We’re all pretty excited.”
NASA and Lockheed hope the design of the aircraft will dampen the ground shaking noise caused by a sonic boom. Any aircraft which travels faster than the speed of sound, or Mach one, will cause a sonic boom.
The X-59 is designed to fly at an altitude of 55,000 feet and travel at a speed of nearly 940 mph. This speed is over Mach one, and NASA hopes the X-59’s sonic boom will create a sound equal to that of a car door closing.
“The long, slender design of the aircraft is the key to achieving a low sonic boom,” Peter Iosifidis, Lockheed Martin program manager for the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator, said. “As we enter into the manufacturing phase, the aircraft structure begins to take shape, bringing us one step closer to enabling supersonic travel for passengers around the world.”
During the third testing phase, the X-59 will fly across several communities of the United States to gather sound and shock wave data between 2023 to 2025. Sensors around the aircraft; military aircraft flying nearby; and feedback from engineers and the community on the ground will provide information as to how quiet the LBFD really is at the speed of sound.
(Charles A Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)