What You Need to Know About NASA’s New, Supersonic X-Plane

$247.5 million experimental aircraft could revive Mach 2-plus flights for civilians.

supersonic plane
An artist’s concept of the low-boom flight demonstrator outside the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company’s Skunk Works hangar in Palmdale, California. (Lockheed Martin)

NASA has some big news: They plan to design and build an aircraft that can fly faster than the speed of sound with quiet, supersonic technology. According to NASA’s press release, the experimental plane, called the Low-Boom Flight Demonstration (LBFD), will be designed to reduce the sonic boom associated with supersonic flight. Sonic booms are shockwaves that result from air compressing—and then being pierced—by an airplane’s nose and tail as it approaches and then surpasses the speed of sound. NASA gave Lockheed Martin $247.5 million to build the single-pilot plane by 2021.

The first flight to break the sound barrier took place in 1947, in the Bell X-1, with Chuck Yeager as a pilot. He became the fastest man on Earth when he reached a speed of Mach 1.06, Smithsonian Magazine reports. Then in 1967, NASA’s experimental plane, the X-15, set a manned speed record by flying at hypersonic speeds above Mach 5. Currently, a flight from London to New York takes close to seven and a half hours to complete, but if NASA could revive supersonic flight, the time could be cut in half. (The British Concorde could travel the same distance in less than three and a half hours.) Supersonic flights have been banned since Concorde’s tragic crash in 2000, but NASA is hoping the new X-plane could revolutionize air travel. And by focusing on a new, low-profile design that minimizes shockwaves, NASA hopes that the LPFD could one day lead to supersonic travel on overland routes as well.

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