The agency says this will accelerate the adoption of advanced green aviation technologies across the industry.

History is about to repeat itself. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is about to push the boundaries of aviation technology once again, with the launch of the “New Aviation Horizons” initiative. The idea is to develop a new generation of X-Planes, which will be quieter supersonic jets and environmentally friendly as well.

A preliminary design contract was awarded in February to a team led by global aerospace, defence, security and advanced technologies company Lockheed Martin—they will now develop the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST). In the same month, the US Congress had approved new funding for the agency’s initiative. “This new supersonic X-plane could fly in the 2020 timeframe,” says NASA, depending on funding and development of the aircraft.

NASA’s famed X-Planes have already set some milestones in the past. The X-1, built by Bell Aircraft, broke the sound barrier in October 1947. Then there was the X-15, which flew 199 times between 1959 and 1968, and went beyond the edge of space at hypersonic speed.

Its design and operational procedures directly contributed to the development of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo piloted spaceflight programs in the later years. While the numbers assigned to X-Planes over the years stand at 56, there are actually a lot more—some were given the same number, some didn’t get the X-Plane badge, while some remained prototypes.

Short wings, long wings, delta-shaped wings, forward swept wings, scissor wings, big tails, no tails, jet propulsion, rocket propulsion and even nuclear propulsion—although that technology was never actually flown, it is all on the table. NASA and Lockheed Martin will use the three-legged stool approach with the next generation of X-Planes. One leg represents computational capabilities, which include high-speed super computers. These may be able to simulate the physics of air flowing over an object. The other leg will be about experiments—scientists will usually test scale models of an object or part of an object, including wings, rudder etc., in a wind tunnel to get data on the air flow and performance. The third leg of the stool is to actually go out and fly the design.

The QueSST also aims to fix something the X-1 first introduced to the world almost 70 years ago—the loud sonic boom, which could be heard for miles.

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