Lockheed Martin won a $247.5 million NASA contract for the design, building and testing of a supersonic jet that reduces sonic boom. The jet will test design principles that soften the sonic boom in order to establish an acceptable commercial supersonic noise standard and overturn the current regulations banning commercial supersonic travel over land.

NASA and Lockheed are seeking to champion in technology that can overcome noise restrictions on supersonic flight. In a statement on April 3, 2018, NASA announced that “Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company of Palmdale, California, was selected for the Low-Boom Flight Demonstration (LBFD) contract, a cost-plus-incentive-fee contract valued at $247.5 million.”

Under the contract, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works will build an experimental aircraft, known as the X-plane, of its preliminary design developed with NASA's Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST), the manufacturer said in a press release. It will then deliver the aircraft to the agency’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California.

The experimental single-pilot aircraft will take to the skies for its first test flight in 2021. According to NASA, the X-plane “will cruise at 55,000 feet (16,800 meters) at a speed of about 940 mph (1,513 kph) and create a sound about as loud as a car door closing, 75 Perceived Level decibel (PLdB), instead of a sonic boom.”

After the initial flight, NASA will perform multiple flight tests before flying the X-plane over select cities by mid-2022 to get feedback from communities. The collected data will be provided to regulators for consideration of new sound-based rules regarding supersonic flight over land. The key to success of this mission, therefore, will be to demonstrate the ability to fly supersonic aircraft, yet generate sonic booms so quiet, people on the ground will hardly hear them.

“It’s about the data that will be collected. It’s that data that is used then to shape the future,” said David Richardson, a director at Lockheed’s Skunk Works unit. “We’re very confident as we go forward from here in the design that we have, and being able to achieve that low-boom signature.”

Lockheed’s design should allow the aircraft to mitigate the shock waves emanating from the nose, wings, engine and other protruding areas of the plane when the sound barrier is broken, Bloomberg explains. The plane will utilize existing parts, like the landing gear from an F-16 Fighting Falcon and the pilot seat from a T-38 Talon. It will be 94 feet (28.7 meters) long with a wing span of 29.5 feet (9 meters).

NASA has been designing the experimental plane for several years. The design has already been tested in computer simulations and wind-tunnel experiments, Live Science writes. In fact, Lockheed helped NASA build the small prototype of the quieter supersonic plane tested in these wind tunnel experiments.

“It is super exciting to be back designing and flying X-planes at this scale,” said Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics, in a press release. “Our long tradition of solving the technical barriers of supersonic flight to benefit everyone continues.”

According to NASA, the ultimate goal of the X-plane is to enable quieter supersonic flight and, in turn, create “new commercial cargo and passenger markets in faster-than-sound air travel”. But first, the two partners must show it is possible to fly a quiet supersonic aircraft.

If the X-plane is indeed successful and the ban on overland commercial flight – imposed since 1973 – can be lifted, NASA says it expects private business jets to be the first ones to adopt the design. Large passenger airliners that break the sound barrier, on the other hand, are not expected to show up until at least 2035, Bloomberg writes.