Texas Community Helps NASA Understand Supersonic Future

A public park on a wet and windy day in Galveston, Texas, isn’t the usual location where people imagine cutting edge research into futuristic technology is done. But this is where representatives of the aviation industry, including AIA, and aviation regulators from across the globe gathered to understand what the future of supersonic travel might sound like.

The loud sonic booms generated when an object travels faster than the speed of sound (767 mph) have resulted in strict rules governing supersonic flight across the world, including a complete ban over land in the United States.  This was undoubtedly one of the factors that contributed to Concorde’s commercial difficulties and eventual demise. Since Concorde’s last flight in 2003, it seemed like supersonic travel might be consigned to the history books as a novel experiment.

Supersonic Thump Test Overview

For the last few years however, NASA has been designing a new type of supersonic plane –  the X-59, in conjunction with Lockheed Martin. The X-59 is being designed to cruise at Mach 1.42 while generating a low-boom, or a ‘sonic thump’, which is only 1/1000 as loud as the boom from a current supersonic aircraft. The data gathered from community reactions to test flights of the X-59 will help open the door to a new generation of faster-than-sound flight and add to the work being done by companies such as Aerion, Gulfstream and Boom to make supersonic aircraft a viable option for transcontinental travel.

Future of Supersonic FlightThe research taking place in Galveston was the first stage in understanding how communities might react to these sonic thumps. It involved an F-18 performing a special dive maneuver at supersonic speeds that created a loud sonic boom over the ocean, but generated a quieter sound over the island with an acoustic signature that closely matches that predicted for the X-59.

There was genuine excitement among those in attendance as it was confirmed that the aircraft had reached Mach speed and we waited for the resulting sound. What we eventually heard varied depending on the location, from a distant thump to a faint rumble that was barely audible over the background noise, or in some locations, nothing.

While an operational X-59 is still a few years away, if the noise levels in Galveston really are indicative of how it will eventually fly, the possibilities offered by routine supersonic travel are truly exciting. That this now looks like a plausible reality is testament to what science and technology can achieve, but it’s important that we build on this work.

Technological advancements, including those stemming from research from NASA and the FAA, mean modern aircraft are now more than 80% more fuel efficient than the first jet aircraft and generate 75% less noise. To ensure that these remarkable improvements continue for both supersonic and subsonic aircraft alike – as well as for new technologies such as Urban Air Mobility to reach their potential – government needs to continue to support this innovation.

Funding for aeronautical research must remain a priority in the next NASA reauthorization bill, and programs such as CLEEN, which shares research costs into new aircraft technologies between FAA and industry, must be properly supported. If this happens, we will continue to see new aviation technologies change how we experience the world, just as they have done over the last 100 years.