A sleek, experimental plane that would quietly crack the speed of sound and transform a trans-Atlantic flight into a three-hour hop received critical backing on Monday under NASA's budget request for the fiscal year that starts October 1, 2018. The document signals the Trump administration would like to prioritize the jet, as well as further research into faster-than-sound airplane technology.
The budget request refers to the Low-Boom Flight-Demonstrator, a plane NASA wants in order to bring back supersonic commercial flights by mitigating their most annoying side effect, the loud sonic boom that accompanies them.
That boom has always been the biggest stumbling block for commercial supersonic flight. It is caused by the sheer number of air particles the nose of the plane pushes aside as it flies. Those molecules form a wave of high pressure, like a boat's wake as NASA describes it, which rolls out like a carpet beneath the airplane.
It's not a big deal when a plane is speeding over an ocean, but when it approaches land, the effect becomes problematic. The so-called "boom carpet" envelopes the land the plane is traveling over in a deafeningly loud sound that can even cause property damage.
That's where NASA's Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator comes into play, which the agency is hoping to fly by 2021. It's meant to be the culmination of a series of experiments the agency is conducting to make supersonic airplanes that aren't accompanied by the sonic boom. Those experiments have already been taking place (Florida residents occasionally get a warning they'll hear strange sounds off the coast during test flights).
If the technology NASA is developing finds its way onto commercial flights, it won't be the first time passengers have been able to pay a pretty penny to fly faster than the speed of sound. The storied fleet of Concorde jets offered service across the Atlantic up until 2003, although tickets cost thousands of dollars. The Concorde jets also did not have a way of muting their sonic boom and so were limited to subsonic speeds while traveling over land.
NASA's hope is that once they nail the secret of a quieter supersonic jet, they can share that technology with commercial airlines. If they're successful, you could be hopping around the world faster than you ever expected.
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