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Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator
An artist’s conception shows the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator at work. (NASA Illustration)

NASA says Lockheed Martin will be its partner in building a supersonic test plane that’s designed to muffle sonic booms and clear the way for a new boom in faster-than-sound passenger flights.

California-based Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. won the $247.5 million contract to build the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator, or LBFD, after putting in the sole bid for the project, NASA officials said today.

NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, said boom-reducing aerodynamics will be a “game-changer” for civilian flight — a view that was voiced by other officials as well.

“I believe today is a new beginning for NASA aeronautics,” Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, said during a televised news conference. “People enjoying affordable, quiet, supersonic flights in the future will say April 3, 2018, was the day it all began.”

The development plan, based on early design work done for NASA by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, calls for the 94-foot-long, 29.5-foot-wingspan plane to be delivered to NASA and start flying in 2021.

The jet will have a fully fueled takeoff weight of 32,300 pounds. Propulsion will be provided by a single General Electric F414 engine, the same powerplant used by F/A-18E/F fighter jets. The single-seat cockpit is modeled after the design for the rear cockpit seat in a T-38 training jet.

“What you see in front of you, as far as the airplane, is a brand-new shape,” said Peter Iosifidis, LBFD program manager at Lockheed Martin. “Everything else within the airplane is existing commercially off the shelf, or salvaged from other aircraft.”

Construction will be done at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works facility in Palmdale, Calif., and the first flight tests will take place at a supersonic test range over nearby Edwards Air Force Base. NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center will oversee flight operations, with three other NASA centers playing roles as well.

One of the pilots at Armstrong who’s due to fly the plane, Jim Less, said in a NASA feature about the project that he was eager to taking his turn at the controls.

“A supersonic manned X-plane!” he said. “This is probably going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. We’re all pretty excited.”

The plane is designed to be flown at speeds of up to Mach 1.5, or 990 mph, at a cruising altitude of 55,000 feet. Its aerodynamic shape is designed to reduce the “boom-boom” associated with supersonic flight to a muffled “thump-thump.”

From 2022 to 2025, flight tests will be conducted in the vicinity of four to six cities around the U.S., roughly twice a year, to assess how the sonic thumps would be perceived by residents in surrounding communities. Those test cities have yet to be selected.

Test results would be shared with the Federal Aviation Administration and other aviation authorities around the world, in hopes that the evidence would lead to the easing of limits on commercial supersonic flights over land. Such flights have been banned over the U.S. since 1973, largely due to concerns about sonic booms.

Dave Richardson, the director for air vehicle designs and technologies at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, emphasized that the LBFD would serve merely to prove out the technology for quiet supersonic flight.

“This is a purpose-built experimental research aircraft,” he said. “It is not a prototype for a supersonic business jet. It is not a prototype for some weapons system. It is not a derivative or some other modification of an existing airplane.”

The results from the LBFD project could be factored into the designs for commercial supersonic jets, however. Several ventures — including Boom Technology, Spike Aerospace and Aerion Supersonic — already are working on concepts.

For what it’s worth, Lockheed Martin is one of Aerion’s partners on a supersonic business-jet development project. Aerion says it’s expecting to conduct the first flight of its 12-passenger jet in 2023 and get it certified in 2025. That’s when the LBFD project is expected to wrap up.

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