Call it an old idea in a new box. NASA engineers are working on a Concorde-like commercial airplane that doesn't produce the bone-jarring sonic booms that helped derail the original Concorde, which made its last flight in 2003.
A $20 million design contract for the QueSST -- for Quiet SST -- was awarded to Lockheed Martin at a Monday press conference at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC.
At the conference, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the QueSST, a new generation of "X-Plane," will create "a soft thump."
It will climb to about 50,000 feet cruising altitude, more than 10,000 feet higher than most commercial aircraft, and produce 20 times less sound energy than the Concorde.
It will also fly faster, use less fuel and land more quietly than existing aircraft.
"We believe we will make flying a lot more enjoyable," Bolden said.
Bolden also said the new aircraft will use half as much fuel as current planes and emit fewer greenhouse gases. Some advances will come in reduced flying times -- a faster plane pollutes less as long as it's not a gas-guzzler. Lighter, more aerodynamic airplane bodies help make this happen.
As for silencing the sonic boom, NASA aeronautic engineers are working on a special shape that will prevent the build up of pressure waves along the airplane fuselage, explained Peter Coen, supersonic project manager at NASA Langley.
When any aircraft travels faster than sound, pressure waves caused by the build-up of air around the plane's nose, canopy and other structures all produce individual shockwaves, which then combine into two waves by the time they reach the ground, Coen said. That's why we hear a double-boom when military aircraft fly overhead.
NASA says it has figured out how to turn a sonic boom into "the sound of a car door closing down the street," Coen said.
"We concentrate very carefully on the shape of the aircraft, everything from the forward fuselage, the shape of the wings, and the engine is positioned with the (air intake) inlet on top," he said. "We want to control the strength and position of every shockwave that is formed. If we can keep them the same strength and apart from each other, they will never coalesce."
Coen said NASA has already reduced the sound of the shock wave down to a 75 perceived level decibels. That compares to the 105 perceived level dB generated by the Concorde during its heyday.
NASA's announcement Monday was the design phase a single-pilot demonstrator plane that will eventually cost $300 million to build and test, but could be flying as soon as 2019.
The demonstrator will use an existing F-18 jet engine to reach 1,100 miles per hour, or Mach 1.4. For comparison, the Concorde had an average cruising speed of Mach 2.02 (1,334 mph) or just over twice the speed of sound. But the new QueSST is no slouch. It'll fly passengers just about anywhere in world in six hours or less.
The Concorde made its public debut in 1969, and was flown up by several airlines including British Airways and Air France. A competing American version called the Boeing 2707 SST was canceled before being built over potential environmental and noise concerns.
Concorde made its final flight in 2003, and was bested by huge fuel costs, ticket prices and the problem that it could not fly over land at night because of complaints from the shock wave.
NASA's QueSST project is part of a larger $3.7 billion New Horizons in Aviation initiative included in NASA's 2017 fiscal year budget request. The larger package must still be approved by Congress.