NASA Unveils High Supersonic Transport Technology Project

Boeing High-Speed Airliner Concept
Credit: Guy Norris/Aviation Week

COLORADO SPRINGS—Two U.S. aerospace industry teams have been awarded NASA contracts to study technology for sustainable high-speed airliner designs capable of Mach 2-plus under the research agency’s Advanced Air Vehicle’s Program.

The teams, led by Boeing and Northrop Grumman, are charged with developing technology roadmaps covering key elements including airframe, power, propulsion, thermal management, and composite materials that can operate at high Mach speeds. The teams also have been asked to develop designs for concept vehicles.

NASA plans to use the results of the studies, including the concept designs, to formulate a high-speed strategy that addresses the emerging potential market gap between commercial supersonic and multirole hypersonic vehicles. NASA’s current Commercial Supersonic Technology effort is focused on the Mach 1.4-1.9 cruise range and the X-59 low-boom demonstrator, while the agency’s Hypersonic Technology program is evaluating technology for Mach 5-plus vehicles and cruise conditions at Mach 8-9, in particular.

Boeing’s team includes supersonic aircraft developer Exosonic, GE Aerospace, Georgia Tech Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory, Rolls-Royce North America and the University of Texas at Arlington’s Aerospace Vehicle Design Laboratory. The Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems team includes Blue Ridge Research and Consulting, supersonic airliner developer Boom Supersonic, and Rolls-Royce North America.

The program was launched following high-speed market studies by Deloitte/SpaceWorks and SAIC/Bryce Space and Technology, which covered the potential demand for aircraft capable of Mach 2-4 flying on ranges of 4,000-4,500 nm. The SAIC-led study focused on a Mach 3 concept able to carry up to 50 passengers on as many as 300 routes, while the Deloitte study covered a Mach 2-4 design sized for 20-50 passengers that could operate on 90 overwater routes only.

The studies also found there was a potential commercially viable market for higher speed aircraft in the Mach 5-5.25 range. They also found that while the North Atlantic remains the largest market, there is interest in smaller Mach 2-3 vehicles able to fly longer ranges of 6,000 nm-plus.

The studies noted that many of the key barriers for commercial supersonic and hypersonic flight are similar but significant differences result from variations in Mach number and flight conditions. The push for concept vehicle studies across the Mach 2-5 range came from industry feedback from a NASA high-speed commercial vehicle workshop held in June 2022. Contracts for the studies were awarded quietly in December 2022, with Northrop beginning work in February and Boeing in June.

The agency says, “once the industry engagement phase is completed, NASA and its industry and academic partners will decide whether to continue the research with their own investments.”

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.