Supersonic flight has proven to be a powerful tool for both commercial travel and military operations. Unfortunately, it creates an extremely loud sonic boom that disturbs residents on the ground and puts military missions at risk by reducing their stealth component. As such, engineers have spent countless hours developing methods to reduce the noise associated with sonic booms while also researching how to eliminate the phenomenon entirely. In this blog, we will discuss current strategies being tested while also examining future solutions.
Before understanding sound-dampening strategies, it is important to first understand the mechanism of a sonic boom. Sonic booms are sound-producing shock waves that occur when a projectile or other flying object exceeds the speed of sound while traveling through the air. While varying in magnitude, the sound produced by a sonic boom is always loud, usually between 100-120 dBA. Surprising to most, sonic booms do not occur in a singular moment as the aircraft passes the speed of sound, but rather it is a continuous phenomenon that exists during the entire supersonic flight. Because of this, supersonic flight has been banned in the United States and many European countries since the 1970s.
In the early 2000s, NASA engineers set out on a mission to reduce the noise and occurrences of sonic booms by testing several design modifications. The first aircraft studied was a modified Northrop F-5E Tiger II, which featured a longer nose and deepened fairings. With these changes, engineers reduced the decibels produced by the sonic boom by 4.7 dBA. The next big development came about in 2005, when NASA affixed a large spike on the nose of an F-15B, hoping to create smaller shockwaves instead of the typical large one.
Most recently, NASA tested a small-scale model of the X-59 Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST). Using several Schlieren cameras, researchers were able to observe and quantify the several shockwaves created by their model. The results from this experiment resembled those of a previous computer model that predicted quieter supersonic flight. The first test flight for the recently completed full-scale X-59 is slated to take place in 2022.
The X-59 has several unique features that contribute to its quieter nature. Some of the most important are thus explained:
Shape: The wings feature a swept-back design similar to the commercialized Concorde jet, which popularized supersonic flight. These wings allow the shockwaves to evenly disperse and exit the aircraft at an angle that is less likely to cause a singular sonic boom.
Engine: While other modern supersonic designs implement three or more engines in unique positions, the X-59 will be powered by a single high-thrust engine. This engine is also placed above the aircraft in order to reduce the noise heard by ground observers.
Length: The X-59 is designed to be nearly 100ft long and 30ft wide. Another unique feature is the extremely long 38ft nose, making up a third of the total aircraft length.
Cockpit: Since the nose extends far out in front of the cockpit, pilots wouldn't be able to see in front of the aircraft without help. To aid in visualization, NASA implemented several cameras and sensors to give a heads-up display, enabling pilots to see through the nose.
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