Lockheed Martin Skunk Works has won a $247.5-million contract to build an X-plane for NASA that will be capable of flying at supersonic speeds without generating such a loud sonic boom.
The full-scale plane, known as the low-boom flight demonstrator, is to be built at the Skunk Works facility in Palmdale. The plane’s first flight is set for 2021.
Lockheed Martin had won a previous contract to work on the plane’s preliminary design in 2016.
The X-plane is intended to create a “gentle thump” during flight, a sound that would be no louder than closing a car door, while cruising at about 940 mph at 55,000 feet, according to NASA.
The plane’s outer design is key to generating this softer noise by separating the sonic waves created during supersonic flight so they never join together to create the loud sound.
After receiving the plane from Lockheed Martin in late 2021, NASA plans to conduct a series of flights over certain U.S. cities to get community feedback on the sound. That data will then be turned over to U.S. and international regulators to be considered when making new rules on sound for supersonic flights over land.
The Federal Aviation Administration has had a long-standing ban on supersonic flight by commercial aircraft over land.
The NASA X-plane is just one of several new moves into the supersonic passenger jet space. Companies involved in the space say the growth in global business travel, as well as new developments in materials and computing, could make supersonic flight more economically viable than during the days of the Concorde, a turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner that was retired in 2003 because of low passenger numbers, high maintenance costs and a slower market for air travel after 9/11.