X-59 Resembles Actual Aircraft
A heavy chorus of bolting and machinery filled the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology, or QueSST, assembly building as engineers, system technicians, and aircraft fabricators worked to merge the major aircraft sections together, making it look like an actual aircraft for the first time since the initial cut of metal in 2018.
"We’ve now transitioned from being a bunch of separate parts sitting around on different parts of the production floor to an airplane,” said Jay Brandon, NASA chief engineer for the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator (LBFD) project.
NASA’s X-59 QueSST is under construction at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale, California, and is designed to fly at supersonic speeds– approximately 660 mph at sea level - without producing a startling sonic boom for people on the ground.
NASA will work with U.S. communities to understand their response to the aircraft’s sound and provide that data to regulators, which could change the rules that currently ban supersonic flight over land, cutting travel time in half for air travelers in the near future.
With great precision and accuracy, the team used features on the structure to precisely self-locate the aircraft’s wing, tail assembly, and fuselage or forward section, then employed a series of laser projections to verify the precise fit.
“The extensive use of features and pre-drilled, full-size fastener holes has significantly reduced the time it takes to locate and fit parts, especially mating large assemblies like this,” said David Richardson, Lockheed Martin program director. “It is sort of like how Legos go together. We used the laser tracker to make sure it is all aligned per the engineering specs before we permanently bolted it all together.”
The mating of these major hardware components was a breath of fresh air for the team.
“A milestone like this - seeing the airplane coming together as a single unit - really reinvigorates and motivates the team,” said Dave Richwine, NASA’s LBFD deputy project manager for technology.
The aircraft’s fuselage contains the cockpit and helps define the shape of the X-59. Eventually the 30-foot-long nose of the aircraft will be mounted to the fuselage.
Part of the cockpit is something you might see in an office. The pilot will see the sky ahead through a 4K computer monitor, which will display complex computer-processed imagery from two cameras mounted above and below the X-59’s nose. NASA calls this forward-facing “window” the eXternal Vision System or XVS.
The XVS serves as an additional safety aid to help the pilot maneuver safely through the skies. This cutting-edge vision system is necessary because the desired shape and long nose of the X-59 won’t allow for a protruding cockpit canopy.
The X-59’s unique shape controls the way the air moves away from the plane, ultimately preventing a sonic boom from disturbing communities on the ground.
The most recognizable part of the airplane – the wing – was “the most complicated section and first section of the X-59 that was fabricated by Lockheed Martin,” explained Richwine. Housed within the 29.5-foot-wide wing are the aircraft’s fuel systems and a large portion of its control systems.
The Lockheed Martin team used robotic machines with names that sound like pilot call signs – Mongoose and COBRA – to manufacture the wing before its mate to the tail assembly and fuselage.
Mongoose is a tool with the ability to weave together composite wing skins using ultraviolet light to bind the composite material. COBRA - Combined Operation: Bolting and Robotic AutoDrill – efficiently created holes that allowed the team to attach the wing skins to the wing frame.
The tail assembly contains the engine compartment. This section is built with heat resistant materials that protect the aircraft from the heat given off by the X-59's GE F414 engine.
The engine is in the upper section of the X-59. Similar to the XVS, it is one of many purposeful design elements that ensure the aircraft is shaped as desired to produce a quieter noise to people below.
What’s the point of the X-59 – apart from it just being ‘plane’ cool?
The X-59 – the visual centerpiece of the mission - definitely brings in the cool factor, but the data part of NASA’s mission - the nerdy part – is what will revolutionize speedy commercial air travel over land.
NASA’s quiet supersonic mission involves building the X-59 (happening now) and conducting initial flight tests starting in 2022.
In 2023, NASA will fly the X-59 over the test range at the agency’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California to prove it can produce a quieter sonic thump and is safe to operate in the National Airspace System. More than 175 ground recording systems will measure the sound coming from the X-59.
In 2024, NASA will fly the X-59 over several communities around the nation to gauge people’s response to the sonic thump sound produced by the aircraft – if they hear anything at all. The data collected will be given to the Federal Aviation Administration and the International Civil Aviation Organization for their consideration in changing the existing bans on supersonic flight over land.
That ban went into effect in 1973 and has plagued commercial supersonic ventures ever since, restricting faster-than-sound travel only to flights over the ocean. British Airways and Air France flying the Concorde were two airlines that offered such service between 1976 and 2003.
If rules change because of NASA’s data, a new fleet of commercial supersonic aircraft become viable, allowing passengers to hop on a plane and arrive from distant destinations in half the time. Though the single-piloted X-59 will never carry passengers, aircraft manufacturers may choose to incorporate its technology into their own designs.
The Future Awaits
With an eye to the future, the team is rigorously working on final assembly of the X-59, which will mark the end of manufacturing.
In late 2021, Lockheed Martin will ship the X-59 to a sister facility in Ft. Worth, Texas, where ground testing will be done to ensure the aircraft can withstand the loads and stresses that typically occur during flight. There, the team also will calibrate and test the fuel systems before the X-59 makes the journey back to California for more tests.
Though seemingly a long way away, community overflights, data collection and a possible new commercial market for supersonic flight over land is just around the corner.
NASA’s X-59 Arrives Back in California Following Critical Ground Tests
Jet Engine Installed on NASA’s X-59
NASA’s quiet supersonic X-59 now has the engine that will power it in flight.
The installation of the F414-GE-100 engine took place at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works facility in Palmdale, California, earlier this month, marking a major milestone as the X-59 approaches the completion of its assembly.
The 13-foot-long engine from General Electric Aviation packs 22,000 pounds of propulsion energy and will power the X-59 as it flies at speeds up to Mach 1.4 and altitudes around 55,000 feet.
“The engine installation is the culmination of years of design and planning by the NASA, Lockheed Martin, and General Electric Aviation teams,” said Ray Castner, NASA’s propulsion performance lead for the X-59. “I am both impressed with and proud of this combined team that’s spent the past few months developing the key procedures, which allowed for a smooth installation.”
The X-59 team will follow the aircraft’s assembly with a series of ground tests and ultimately, first flight in 2023.
NASA’s X-59 is the centerpiece of the agency’s Quesst mission. The aircraft is designed to reduce the sound of sonic booms, which occur when an aircraft flies at supersonic speeds, to a quiet sonic “thump.” This will be demonstrated when NASA flies the X-59 over communities around the U.S. starting in 2025, with the goal of providing the data necessary to open the future to commercial supersonic flight over land, greatly reducing flight times.
Low-Speed Wind Tunnel Test Provides Important Data
Before NASA’s quiet supersonic X-59 aircraft can take to the skies, plenty of testing needs to happen to ensure a safe first flight. One part of this safety check is to analyze data collected for the X-59’s flight control system through low-speed wind tunnel tests.
The X-59 is central to NASA’s Quesst mission to expand supersonic flight and provide regulators with data to help change existing national and international aviation rules that ban commercial supersonic flight over land. The aircraft is designed to produce a gentle thump instead of a sonic boom.
Recently, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works facility in Palmdale, California, completed low-speed wind tunnel tests of a scale model of the X-59’s forebody. The tests provided measurements of how wind flows around the aircraft nose and confirmed computer predictions made using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software tools. The data will be fed into the aircraft flight control system and will allow the pilot to know the altitude, speed and angle that the aircraft is flying at in the sky.
“These tests help with developing the flight control system,” said Jeff Flamm, NASA's aerodynamics and performance lead on Quesst. “This flight data is obtained from many instruments on the aircraft including air data probes, GPS and engine instrumentation. These wind tunnel tests allow us to verify our CFD predictions, which let us know our flight control system is safe to fly.”
The Lockheed Martin Skunk Works low-speed wind tunnel produces air moving at the same speed that the real, full-scale X-59 will experience during takeoff and landing. However, most wind tunnels are too small to fit the nearly 100-foot-long aircraft. Therefore, it was more practical for Lockheed-Martin to build an 11.5% scale model of the X-59’s forebody to simulate the airflow around the plane’s nose.
Engineers placed small wind vanes on the X-59 model to measure the angle of the wind at the precise location of the air data instruments on the full-scale aircraft. The testing compared the data collected from the wind tunnel with computer model predictions to see how well they matched.
“The recent low-speed wind tunnel tests were a success,” Flamm said. “The results of the tests matched NASA and Lockheed Martin’s earlier computer predictions. There were no surprises that arose.”
Quesst Mission Continues
Supersonic flight occurs when an aircraft travels faster than the speed of sound. This creates a shockwave that can make a very loud sonic boom, which can startle those on the ground. The X-59 is shaped to address that problem, generating a thump instead.
The aircraft design is important, but Quesst also has other crucial mission components. To provide regulators with data for changing aviation rules that ban commercial supersonic flight over land, NASA plans to fly the X-59 over a number of U.S. communities and survey populations on the acceptability of the sound they hear. The agency will share this information with national and international regulators.
Work on the X-59 continues, and the Quesst team plans for a first flight of the aircraft at the end of 2022.
New Name, Same Great Supersonic Mission
New Name, Same Great Supersonic Mission
Evoking the experimental nature of flight testing and the spirit of aeronautical exploration, Quesst is what NASA is calling its mission to enable supersonic air travel over land. This new moniker – complete with an extra "s" to represent “supersonic” – draws its inspiration from NASA’s long legacy of supersonic flight research.
The mission’s centerpiece is the sleek research plane known as the X-59, which Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is currently building in Palmdale, California.
Quesst replaces the mission’s original name: the Low-Boom Flight Demonstration.
“With Quesst, we’ve found a name that more effectively conveys the purpose, relevance, and – most importantly – excitement of what this mission is all about,” said Peter Coen, NASA’s mission integration manager for Quesst.
Through Quesst, NASA plans to demonstrate that the X-59 can fly faster than sound without generating the loud sonic booms supersonic aircraft typically produce. This thunderous sound is the reason the U.S. and other governments banned most supersonic flight over land.
Working with select communities, NASA will fly the X-59 to learn how people react to the diminished sonic “thump” it produces – if they hear anything at all. The agency will share survey data with regulators, with the hope they will consider writing new rules that lift the ban.
Quesst’s New Look
With the introduction of Quesst comes a new mission identity — a blue and green signature mark that represents the elements of Quesst.
The new mission graphic displays stylized supersonic shockwaves encircling the research aircraft, above a community of homes. The imagery highlights the ground-breaking research that will be conducted across several U.S. cities during this mission.
Inspiration for the design comes from images captured during NASA’s 2019 Air-to-Air Background Oriented Schlieren (AirBOS) flight series, which recorded images of intersecting shockwaves from supersonic jets.
Here’s a breakdown of the design and its color palette:
- The supersonic shockwaves, represented here in green, do not merge. This is what enables the X-59 to produce a quieter sonic thump.
- The aircraft shape represents the X-59. While previously known as the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology, the aircraft will now just be referred to as the X-59.
- The three houses represent the communities that will provide the data that could allow for future commercial supersonic flight over land.
- The crescent represents land, highlighting the crucial and unique aspect of our mission – commercial supersonic flight over land.
- Overall, the blue and green symbolize the Earth, and where the value of NASA’s aeronautics research is experienced by humankind every day.
The Quesst Plan
To achieve its mission goals, NASA has laid out Quesst in three phases. The first and current phase focuses on the assembly of the X-59, followed by initial flights planned for later this year to prove the safety and performance of the aircraft.
The second phase, expected to take place during 2023, will focus on acoustic validation. During this phase, the mission will prove the X-59 is ready for regular operations in the National Airspace System. The aircraft will fly over NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California to demonstrate that the supersonic technologies work as designed. The flights will also show that the tools used to predict and measure the sound level of the sonic thump are ready for use in phase three.
Likely the most anticipated point in the mission, phase three will feature the X-59 flying over several communities across the U.S., gathering data from the public to learn what people think of the X-59’s sound. This phase is expected to take place in 2024 through 2026. NASA has yet to select the communities.
The mission is set to wrap up in 2027 by taking the information collected during phase three and sharing it with U.S. and international regulators. With the information gathered during the Quesst mission, the hope is to enable regulators to consider rules based on how loud an aircraft is, not based on an arbitrary speed.
“The Quesst mission has the potential to transform air travel as we currently know it,” Coen said. “Success of this mission will open the door to fast air travel for everyone across the globe.”