The return of supersonic passenger travel may be moving closer to reality thanks to a project being undertaken by NASA.
Several NASA researchers will attend the Aviation 2014 event in Atlanta this week, where they will share their research on supersonic travel with the global aviation community.
NASA’s work is concentrating on setting new standards for “low sonic booms”. The space agency is working with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and global aerospace community, including the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to gather data and develop new procedures that may help lift the current ban on supersonic flights over land.
“Lessening sonic booms – shock waves caused by an aircraft flying faster than the speed of sound – is the most significant hurdle to reintroducing commercial supersonic flight,” said Peter Coen, head of the NASA’s high-speed project. “Other barriers include high altitude emissions, fuel efficiency and community noise around airports.”
Engineers at NASA have been engaged in several areas of research on how to tackle sonic booms, including how to design a “low-boom” aircraft.
Wind tunnels are being used to help predict which aircraft designs might have quieter sonic booms. And it appears that the new breed of supersonic aircraft could look similar to Concorde. NASA said that current aircraft designs being tested are “characterised by a needle-like nose, a sleek fuselage and a delta wing or highly-swept wings”. These have been found to result in much lower sonic booms.
The space agency is also asking people to rate the level of annoyance caused by the sounds. A recent flight research campaign at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California had residents offer responses to sonic booms in a real-world setting. Researchers at Armstrong have an advantage as pilots are permitted to fly at supersonic speeds because the facility is located at an Air Force Base.
“People here are more familiar with sonic booms,” said NASA engineer Larry Cliatt. “Eventually, we want to take this to a broader level of people who have never heard a sonic boom.”
Similar work is being conducted at NASA’s research centre in Virginia, where local volunteers rated sonic booms according to how disruptive they determined the sound to be.
“They each listened to a total of 140 sounds, and based on their average response, we can begin to estimate the general public’s reactions,” explained acoustics engineer Alexandra Loubeau.
NASA said it believes supersonic research has now progressed to the point where “the design of a practical low-boom supersonic jet is within reach”.
Concorde entered service in 1976, enabling passengers to fly from London to New York in just 3.5 hours. But only 20 aircraft we ever built and the project suffered a substantial loss. The aircraft was eventually retired in 2003.