It may officially be Hollywood awards season, but NASA is also rolling out a red carpet of its own. On January 12 at 4pm EST, the agency will livestream the official public debut of its highly anticipated X-59 QueSST experimental aircraft. Designed alongside Lockheed Martin’s secretive Skunk Works division, the currently one-of-a-kind X-59 QueSST (short for Quiet SuperSonic Technology) is intended to demonstrate its potentially industry-shifting ability for human air travel at supersonic speeds sans sonic boom.
A sonic boom’s trademark thunderclap has long been associated with vehicles traveling faster than Mach 1. As a plane’s velocity surpasses the speed of sound, the shockwave formed by its wake results in a percussive noise capable of startling nearby humans and animals, as well as shattering windows if loud enough.
While sonic booms are permitted by certain military aircraft, commercial flights above the US have been prohibited from generating them since the Concorde jet’s retirement in 2003. The cutting edge X-59, in contrast, is designed to travel around 938 mph while only creating a “sonic thump” that is supposedly much quieter than an average sonic boom’s 110 decibels. NASA representatives previously estimated the X-59 will generate around 75 decibels of sound, or about as loud as slamming a car door.
Engineers have spent years creating and honing the X-59’s state-of-the-art design. The experimental craft to be showcased on Friday is much smaller and more elongated than similar planes, measuring roughly 95-feet-long and less than 30-feet-wide. As New Scientist points out, that’s narrower than an F-16, but twice as long. The nose alone comprises nearly half plane’s length to ensure shockwaves generated near the front do not merge with waves created in the rear and thus emit a deafening boom. Because of this, the plane’s pilot will rely on 4K video screens inside the cockpit for their visuals to guide the aircraft.
It’s highly unlikely that X-59 will publicly take to the skies on Friday. Instead, the ceremony is meant to mark the beginning of a multiyear testing phase that will see the X-59 speed above “several US communities” selected by NASA’s QueSST team, who will then gather data and assess public reactions to the supposedly “gentle” sonic thump.
“This is the big reveal,” Catherine Bahm, manager of NASA’s Low Boom Flight Demonstrator project overseeing the X-59’s development and construction, said in a separate announcement. “The rollout is a huge milestone toward achieving the overarching goal of the QueSST mission to quiet the sonic boom.”
To call a sonic thump “quiet” may be a bit of an oversell, however. According to a 2022 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, many people aren’t exactly pleased with daily disruptions caused by existing subsonic air travel, so it’s hard to envision sonic thumps being quieter than the average passenger jet. And even if the X-59’s volume proves nominal, environmental advocates continue to voice concerns over the potentially dramatic increase in carbon emissions that a new era of hypersonic flights could generate. In a letter penned to NASA administrator Bill Nelson by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) last year, the watchdog organization argued increased supersonic travel would be a “climate debacle.”
“Because the QueSSt mission is focused on the sonic boom challenge, the X-59 is not intended to be used as a tool to conduct research into other challenges of supersonic flight such as landing and takeoff noise, emissions and fuel burn. These challenges are being explored in other NASA research,” NASA representatives told The Register in July 2023.
Even if everything goes smoothly, however, it is unlikely that a fleet of X-59 jets will be zipping over everyone’s heads anytime soon. In 2021, a Lockheed Martin Skunk Works manager estimated that supersonic air travel won’t feasibly make its potential return until around 2035.
First, however, is Friday’s scheduled pomp and circumstance. Viewers can tune into NASA’s livestream of the event at 4pm ET on YouTube, as well as through the agency’s NASA+ streaming service, NASA app, and website.