NASA partnering with Lockheed Martin to build quiet supersonic plane

It opens up the possibility of commercial supersonic travel over land.

NASA is partnering with Lockheed Martin to develop an experimental manned airplane capable of traveling faster than the speed of sound while staying relatively quiet.

The plane, known as the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator, could eventually clear the way for commercial supersonic travel over land, a capability currently banned by the FAA due to loud sonic booms produced by planes like the now-retired Concorde.

“It is super exciting to be back designing and flying X-planes at this scale,” Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA, said, referencing the series of supersonic research planes produced by Bell Aircraft starting in the mid-1940s.

“Our long tradition of solving the technical barriers of supersonic flight to benefit everyone continues,” Shin added.

A new shape, first developed during the 1960s and tested in the years since, will allow the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator to reach supersonic speeds while producing a series of “soft thumps” instead of loud booms, according to NASA.

Conventional supersonic planes generate shock waves that collide with each other upon breaking the sound barrier, producing sonic booms. The Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator is designed to send those shock waves away from each other, which Lockheed Martin says produces a sound about as loud as a car door being closed.

The nearly quarter-billion-dollar contract calls for the single-jet plane, capable of cruising at 940 miles per hour, to be delivered to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California by the end of 2021.

After the plane undergoes flight testing at Edwards, NASA will then begin “community response” tests at both the base and in up to six U.S. cities, slated for completion by 2025. NASA has not yet selected the cities that will be involved in those tests.

Peter Iosifidis, program manager for the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, said he is honored to continue working on supersonic travel with NASA.

"We look forward to applying the extensive work completed under QueSST to the design, build and flight test of the X-plane, providing NASA with a demonstrator to make supersonic commercial travel possible for passengers around the globe," he said in a statement.