Thanks to NASA, the supersonic passenger jet might be coming back.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Thanks to NASA, the supersonic passenger jet might be coming back.
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Supersonic passenger jets were incredible. While passenger planes today have cruising speeds of 926 km/h, supersonic passenger jets could fly at twice the speed of sound (up to 2,180 km/h), cutting travel time dramatically.

However, breaking the sound barrier unleashed a frightful sonic boom that could shatter windows and rumble buildings over populated areas. That, and a whole list of other problems like high costs, is why no supersonic passenger jets have flown since 2003.

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), however, may have found a way to build a plane that produces a quiet sonic ‘bump’ instead of a sonic boom.

Working together with Lockheed Martin, NASA simulated how different aircraft shapes create different supersonic shock waves, and they discovered a plane design that prevents sound waves from merging into the loud pattern of a sonic boom. A small-scale model of the design has already been successfully tested in a wind tunnel, so the design appears to be sound.

NASA is targeting sound levels of 60 to 65 dBa, which is as loud as a good conversation, and is now taking bids to build a piloted, single-engine prototype plane. The technology is still decades away, with the first flight tests as far as 2022. But NASA plans to share the technology from the tests with US plane manufacturers, so we could see the return of supersonic passenger planes in our lifetimes – minus the boom.