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NASA is spending $20 million on this supersonic 'X-plane'

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NASA has awarded Lockheed Martin $20 million to design a new series of supersonic aircraft. Known as "low boom" flight demonstration aircraft, NASA hopes these quieter "X-planes" will pave the way for the reintroduction of commercial supersonic flights. Charles Bolden, the administrator of NASA, announced the news during an event at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Virginia yesterday.

Bolden invoked Chuck Yeager's flight in the Bell X-1, which broke the sound barrier in 1947. "Now we’re continuing that supersonic X-plane legacy with this preliminary design award for a quieter supersonic jet with an aim toward passenger flight," Bolden said. The design for Lockheed's test plane will be about half the size of a commercial plane and will "likely" be piloted, according to NASA, which leaves some room for autonomy.

Test flights won't start until at least 2020

NASA began soliciting concepts for supersonic test aircraft last year, with a specific focus on planes that could break the sound barrier without creating massive sonic booms. The agency was instead looking for planes that produce quieter supersonic "heartbeats," or what it refers to as Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST). NASA points to noise pollution as one of the barriers preventing the return of commercial supersonic flights. In fact, it was such a point of contention with the Concorde that overland supersonic flights are banned in some parts of the world, including the US and Europe.

The $20 million awarded to Lockheed Martin will fund preliminary design work over the next 17 months. During that time, the contract requires the company to develop a design and specifications for the aircraft, which will be validated by wind tunnel tests and computer simulations. After that, another contract competition will be held to build the aircraft. NASA aims to begin test flights around 2020 as long as funding is continued.