In­no­va­tions

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When Chuck Yea­ger broke the sound bar­rier in the Bell X-1 in 1947, a sonic boom rang out that bat­tered the eardrums of any­one un­der­neath the plane’s 20-sec­ond su­per­sonic flight path. Now, NASA has just an­nounced fund­ing for its lat­est X-plane, a com­mer­cial jet ca­pa­ble of fly­ing at those same su­per­sonic speeds (faster than the speed of sound), with­out the dis­turb­ing the peace be­low.

NASA has awarded Lock­heed Mar­tin a $247.5m (£183m ap­prox) con­tract to build a work­ing ex­am­ple of a pro­to­type it’s been work­ing on for a few years: the Low Boom Flight Demon­stra­tor. It has a long, pointy nose and small, aero­dy­namic wings, which should min­imise the pres­sure waves that cre­ate the noise at su­per­sonic speeds. NASA plans to start fly­ing the plane by 2022, with test­ing over highly pop­u­lated ar­eas com­pleted by 2025.

If suc­cess­ful, it won’t be the first com­mer­cial su­per­sonic jet. Con­corde be­gan tak­ing pas­sen­gers in 1976, but it was soon banned from fly­ing su­per­sonic over land in the USA and Europe be­cause of the noise it cre­ated. Lock­heed Mar­tin says this new X-plane won’t be com­pletely silent – the shock­waves should sound more like a car door clos­ing than a deaf­en­ing boom.

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