Planes that will defy all thought and imagination? Yes, NASA will confidently build the X-planes in the next few years.

It seems like the future is finally at our doorstep. We’ve got self-driving cars. We’ve got robots that seem closer to the singularity with each passing day. We can grow artificial organs.

However, we still fly around in the same clunky metal tubes as we did nearly half a century ago. Airplanes, that is.

While existing planes can always be upgraded to fit changing times, those upgrades won’t last forever. The aviation industry is on the verge of a technological revolution, and NASA wants to get it there.

This will ideally happen in a decade-long window, according to a federal budget request that was recently released. If the request passes, next year will launch NASA’s journey to change aviation for good and for the better. Just a few items on their goal list are cutting down noise, fuel consumption and emissions.

To do this, NASA will take a step back in time to a seemingly forgotten age of aviation – where innovation dominated the news and the public hung on every word about the next generation of flight. The result will be planes that will defy all thought and imagination. That’s right: NASA will build X-planes again.

Back to the Future of Aviation

This X-plane project is appropriately dubbed New Aviation Horizons. NASA will confidently put six years of technology advancements in related industries to the test by demonstrating them on aircraft. They also hope this project will move the new technology into commercial industries at a faster rate.

One X-plane design is centered on a giant wing shape. It’s a hybrid design that blends the wings with the body. The plane is both a test of new composite materials and a revolutionary shape. Ten years of research back this visually stunning design, which features turbofan engines on top of the fuselage and in between two tails that shield engine noise.

This plane will fly at the speed of current commercial airliners, but another X-plane is in the works that will go supersonic – yet do it incredibly quietly.

The Concorde, a collaborative airplane between the French and British, was an amazing feat of engineering that harnessed supersonic technology to shuttle passengers across the Atlantic for three decades. It was plagued with problems during its service, but one of its most unacceptable faults was the massive sonic boom it produced. It was only able to go supersonic when over the ocean.

NASA’s Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST), another development of the New Aviation Horizons campaign, covers up the incredibly loud sonic boom that happens when a jet passes through the sound barrier. Compared to the Concorde’s 105 decibels, the QueSST sonic boom would only produce 75 decibels of noise, barely more than a thump. This means that aircraft using this technology could go supersonic over land, opening up new destinations and markets.

The fun doesn’t stop there. The New Aviation Horizons mission also aims to look a few more years into the future, making advances in hypersonic travel. This means planes of the future will go Mach 5 to 8, more than 4,000 mph!

Ideas Taking Flight

Let’s keep our heads in the present for now – other X-planes on the near-future agenda will demonstrate the efficiency of new subsonic designs. These designs include electric propulsion, longer and narrower wings,extra-wide fuselages and embedded engines.

Many features of the X-planes will be designed using a process called die-casting. This process uses high pressure to bend molten metal into molds that can be reused to mass-produce parts. To do this process, a furnace, a die casting machine, metal, and die must be used. The furnace melts the metal, which is then injected into the dies. The machine can be either a hot chamber machine, which is meant for alloys with low melting temperatures, or cold chamber machines, meant for high melting point alloys. Since the aviation industry requires lightweight metals like aluminum, die-casting is a perfect solution.

Though the X-planes will be smaller than a standard production aircraft, they will be manned and ready for use by 2020. The New Aviation Horizons plan will be a collaborative effort between NASA and a ready-and-waiting list of airlines and airports, as well as the Federal Aviation Administration.

Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, had this to say about the plan in a statement:

This is an exciting time for the entire NASA Aeronautics team and for those who benefit from aviation, which, frankly, is everyone. With this 10-year plan to accelerate the transformation of aviation, the United States can maintain its status as the world’s leader in aviation for many years to come.


After reading about X-planes, you’re probably interested in learning more about NASA’s other discoveries and innovations. Megan Ray Nichols is the editor of Schooled by Science, where she enjoys writing about astronomy and other scientific fields.

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