NASA is moving into the next phase of its supersonic research, awarding a $247.5 million contract to Lockheed Martin Aeronautics to build an X-plane called the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator (LBFD). The 94-foot-long LBFD will be used to test new technologies that would result in a low-boom, or softer “thump,” as NASA officials describe it, rather than the traditional sonic boom that has accompanied supersonic speeds and served as the environmental barrier to such flight over land.
The LBFD, which will fly at Mach 1.4 at 55,000 feet, will be developed over the next two years in preparation for first flight in 2021. A three-year test program will follow that will involve measuring the noise signature and community response to supersonic flight, and accompanying thump, over land. NASA will select a series of communities representing a variety of demographics to conduct the flights. The communities will subsequently be surveyed for reaction to the noise.
The goal is to gather data that could be presented to regulators such as the FAA and the International Civil Aviation Organization for evaluating future regulations regarding supersonic flight.
The aircraft was built “as a system” that is long and slender, with a shape that controls the strength and position of shockwaves. But the aircraft will be developed with already existing components to lower risk. The canopy for instance, is off the T-38, landing gear is from the F-16, and a number of other components are from F-16s and F-18s. The aircraft will use the F-18E/F's GE F414 engine.
The airplane is not intended to be sized up for commercial flight or to be used for defense purposes, but rather solely to design technologies that could one day transfer into military or commercial applications.
Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator of NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington, called the announcement “history-making,” saying “NASA is opening a new era: the 21st century X-plane era.” Noting that NASA in the past century had flown a number X-planes with the U.S. Air Force and industry to achieve aerospace breakthroughs, he said, “Our long tradition of solving the toughest problems of flights through X-planes continues.”
Lockheed was the sole bidder for the contract, and the award follows a contract the company received in February 2016 to develop a 15-percent scale Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) preliminary design model that was the precursor of an LBFD. The QueSST was used to demonstrate that an LBFD design could achieve the mission objective of creating the softer thump rather than loud boom while flying over land. NASA and Lockheed engineers and experts concluded that the technologies could achieve the objective and finalized the design last year.
In recent years, Congress has demonstrated a heightened interest in taking a fresh look at restrictions placed on supersonic flight, writing various measures directing the FAA to evaluate whether regulations could be updated.
For Lockheed Martin, this is a continuation of a long history of supersonic flight with a portfolio that includes the Mach 3 SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft, along with the F-16, F-35, and F-22 fighters.
Late last year, Lockheed Martin signed a memorandum of understanding with Aerion to explore development of the Aerion AS2 supersonic business jet. Under the MoU, Lockheed Martin and Aerion planned to develop a framework this year for all phases of the program, from engineering to certification and production.
But the Aerion work is separate from this project, involving a different design that does not eliminate boom but rather focuses on flight over water.