A new age in aviation is on the horizon.
Aircrafts will be cleaner, quieter, and faster than ever before.
If all goes according to plan, that is.
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Agency) recently put forth a 10-year strategy, which will research a number of avenues – reducing fuel use, lowering emissions, and eliminating as much noise as possible from air travel.
Over the next decade, NASA will design, build, and fly a number of different aircraft, or “X-planes.”
This type of innovation is nothing new for NASA. After all, it funded the Bell X-1 aircraft, in which Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier about 70 years ago.
But the most exciting of these innovations is a throwback to a golden era of air travel…
The Rise and Fall of Concorde
The first in the series of X-planes will be the first supersonic commercial jet since the Concorde.
Designed by British and French engineers in the early 1960s, Concorde was beautiful to look at and extraordinarily fast, with a cruising speed of Mach 2.04, or 1,354 miles per hour.
At such a speed, the flight from New York to London took a mere 3 hours and 20 minutes.
Concorde had some serious issues, though.
It was a massive fuel guzzler, burning up 2% of the fuel in its tank just taxiing onto the runway.
It was blighted by a series of safety issues and accidents. And with maintenance being so expensive, it led to the aircraft being taken out of commission in 2003.
Between 1976 (when commercial Concorde flights first started) and 2003, Concorde’s biggest problem was noise. Its turbo-charged engines were so loud that it generated a double sonic boom that broke the sound barrier and resulted in the aircraft being banned nearly everywhere in the world.
Since then, NASA and aviation engineers have strived to find a solution to the sonic boom dilemma.
And they think they’ve found it.
NASA’s QuietSST Jet
Their research has shown that the trick in reducing noise is to change the way air flows around the aircraft.
NASA contends that by angling the contours of the plane correctly, it can greatly reduce noise levels.
Indeed, from Concorde’s 106 decibels, NASA says it’s feasible to lower the decibel level to the 65-70 range. That’s the equivalent of a car door slamming. Much more tolerable.
No surprise that NASA has dubbed the aircraft the “QuietSST” or “QueSST.” But is it possible?
NASA has outsourced the final design of the aircraft to defense giant Lockheed Martin (LMT) in a $20 million contract. Its Skunk Works division takes charge of such experimental projects.
For certain, physics will dictate that QueSST would have to be slim and probably have a needle-shaped nose like the Concorde.
But the aforementioned contours of the airliner will require trial-and-error. As will alternating the air intake from underneath to the top of the engine.
But Lockheed does have a few key advantages.
For one, lighter composite airframe materials are in use today, as well as greater avionics technology.
And in terms of the fuel consumption issue, the resources that were available in the 1960s prevented a solution for the Concorde. But engines today are quieter and more fuel-efficient than ever before.
So much so, NASA believes that a QueSST aircraft will use two-thirds less fuel than its predecessor.
Science vs. Economics
Despite all of the advances and potential, however, there are a number of doubters surrounding the project. Not so much from the scientific side, but from an economic viewpoint.
For example, the narrow body required will limit the number of passengers that the airliner could carry. This naturally poses the question of whether the plane could really be profitable.
However, while we won’t know for a good length of time yet (flight tests on a model about half the size of the actual aircraft aren’t scheduled until 2020), I think this would be an economic aircraft, given the cutting-edge technology going into it.
For now, we’ll have to wait to hitch a ride on QueSST – a quieter, more fuel-efficient modern-day Concorde.