NASA's 'quiet' X-59 supersonic plane moves to Texas for testing and calibration

NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology airplane undergoes structural stress tests at a Lockheed Martin facility in Fort Worth, Texas.
NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology airplane undergoes structural stress tests at a Lockheed Martin facility in Fort Worth, Texas. (Image credit: Lockheed Martin)

A quiet supersonic plane designed and built by NASA to usher in a new era of superfast air travel made a pitstop in Texas to perform crucial structural testing ahead of a debut flight later this year.

NASA's X-59 made the switch between Lockheed Martin facilities in late December, moving the plane between Palmdale, California and Fort Worth, Texas to take advantage of specialized equipment available in the Lone Star State to make sure the speedy vehicle won't face too much stress in mid-air.

"It would have been expensive and time consuming to design and build them from scratch in Palmdale," Mike Buonanno, a Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer who is the vehicle lead for the X-59, said in a NASA statement (opens in new tab) Feb. 11.

"In Fort Worth, they've got the perfect facility with a full control room and all the support equipment needed to do those tests very efficiently," Buonanno added. While the test equipment was made for the shorter-nosed F-16, modifications proceeded swiftly and now the X-59 supersonic plane is being assessed in three different metrics.

In photos: Amazing X-Planes from the X-1 to XV-15 

Supersonic planes are fast movers in the air, but the price is noise and vibrations. Sonic booms occur as the plane exceeds the speed of sound, producing considerable noise and at worst, causing glass shattering and other damage to buildings underneath. 

For example, the supersonic boom produced by the iconic Concorde, which retired in 2003 after providing commercial service for well-heeled passengers for a generation, reached 105 decibels, about as loud as a nearby thunderstrike (opens in new tab)

NASA is seeking ways to fly fast without causing this environmental stress. The X-59, NASA has said previously, should be no more noisy than a car door slamming 20 feet (6 meters) away. 

But the plane will have to be built to take the load of supersonic flight nonetheless. In Texas, engineers seek to calibrate sensors, to understand stress on the aircraft’s structure during flight, and to compare the results with computer models that predicted the X-59's performance.

The engineers will need to be particularly careful with the X-59, as it is a single prototype of an expensive system, which was another reason they wanted to take advantage of the facilities in Texas.

"There are all sorts of safety features built into the testing so that if anything we don't want happening is detected, everything shuts off and the whole thing goes into a safe position," Walter Silva, a senior research scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center who is the agency's structures lead for the X-59, said in the same statement.

The program completed 80% of the structural testing by the last week of January, with everything going well so far, NASA reported. There is no firm timeline to complete the tests, but the program next plans fuel tank calibration, and then an eventual return to Palmdale to install all remaining plane systems and subsystems.

The first flight test is expected in late 2022 in the California high desert.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace