Since the last flight of the Concorde, a turbo-jet powered supersonic passenger plane, in 2003, jet travel has been stubbornly stuck at the same subsonic speed.As the troubled history of the Concorde (and its lesser Soviet counterpart, the Tupolev Tu-144) showed, supersonic air travel depends on overcoming a lot of obstacles, from the pesky sonic boom to high cost, safety issues and insatiable fuel consumption.
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So airlines have given up the quest to reduce travel times, and have focused on fitting more passengers into their planes for less. These days, the closest anyone who isn’t an Air Force pilot or astronaut can get to Mach III is using a Gillette razor.
But the dream of jetting from New York to Tokyo in under three hours hasn’t been abandoned. Among travellers, especially the wealthy, there’s still demand for shorter flight times, especially since air travel has become so unpleasant in recent years. And there’s a young but growing market to meet that demand. More than a few private aerospace companies hope to cash in on the (really) high speed jet travel market. And NASA’s in on the game, too.
There’s no great secret to supersonic flight: It’s about adding power until the aircraft can break the sound barrier. That power has always come from conventional fuel, and lots of it. With the clock ticking on fossil fuels, future aircraft will need to use less fuel or rely on renewable energy sources.
Hypermach Aerospace Ltd is working on a hybrid electric turbine propulsion system to power the SonicStar jet it’s developing. More outlandishly, EADS, the parent company of Airbus, wants to use biofuel made from seaweed in the Zero Emission Hypersonic Transport (ZEHST), which will fly at Mach 4. That’s a lot of seaweed, but since EADS notes the ZHEST won’t be ready for at least 40 years, it has the time to figure everything out.
Trickier than the fuel dilemma is the problem posed by the sonic boom. When an aircraft travels faster than the speed of sound (768 mph), it pushes air molecules aside with enough force to create a shock wave, resulting in a thunder-like boom. Even when it is generated thousands of feet above the ground, that boom is so loud that the United States banned supersonic flight over its territory. Other countries did the same, drastically limiting the routes the Concorde could fly, hurting its economic potential.
To bring back supersonic flight, aircraft designers have to find a way to eliminate the boom, or quiet it enough to make it acceptable. One proposal by Lockheed Martin includes the installation of an inverted-V on the aeroplane’s tail, which the corporation believes could limit the level of sonic booms.
There’s another way to eliminate the boom: leave the atmosphere altogether. XCOR Aerospace believes the future of high speed travel is in outer space. “Rockets are the way to go,” says COO Andrew Nelson. XCOR is pioneering the idea of point-to-point space travel, starting with the Lynx, a suborbital commercial spacecraft that will take off and land like a conventional plane, but cruise at Mach 3.5 (2,688 mph). It will be “much more like a fighter pilot experience” than business class, says Nelson, but it will make for an incredibly quick trip: New York to Tokyo in 90 minutes.
As to when supersonic flight will be available to anyone who can afford it, the estimates range tremendously. Aerion is already working with FAA officials to secure certification for its Supersonic Business Jet, which it aims to have in the air by the end of the decade.
XCOR hopes to start test flights of the Lynx by early 2013, with the goal of offering point-to-point travel (as opposed to taking off and landing in the same place) by 2030. The ZEHST is shooting for 2050; JAXA, the Japanese equivalent of NASA, conservatively bets economical and environmentally-friendly supersonic travel will be available “in the 21st century.”
Of course, “economical” is a relative term. These aircraft, like the Concorde before them, will be the preserve of the wealthy. That isn’t to say high speed flight will always remain off limits to the middle class. Aviation has been a commercial industry for little more than a century, and is now widely accessible.
Once the technology is established, airlines will likely compete to offer it to more and more customers, for lower and lower prices. International business will get easier, friends and families separated by oceans will see each other more often, and the world will get a little smaller.
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