Supersonic Travel Without the Sonic Boom: Inside NASA's X-59 Plane
Imagine flying faster than the speed of sound. With its X-59, NASA could re-open the door to supersonic travel, this time without the explosive boom.
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For decades, flying faster than the speed of sound has meant speeding across the skies in an aircraft that creates a powerful sonic boom -- a huge noise that travels down to the ground below like a crack of thunder.
But imagine being able to travel across the world at over 1,000 miles an hour, without that off-putting and startling noise. Suddenly a new world of consumer travel and aviation would open up -- something that has not been possible for decades.
NASA wants to make this dream a reality. At the Armstrong Flight Research Center, just outside of Lancaster, California, the space agency is working on the X-59 QueSST (short for Quiet SuperSonic Technology) airplane -- a demonstrator aircraft designed to fly faster than the speed of sound generating nothing more than a "sonic thump,"
Traditional supersonic aircraft can create a sonic boom in excess of 100 decibels during flight -- a problem that led the US Federal Aviation Administration to ban commercial supersonic flight over land in 1973.
A mock-up showing the X-59 taking off.
But the X-59 has been shaped to minimize the shock waves that cause a sonic boom midflight, reducing its sound at ground level to 75 decibels. According to NASA, that's about as loud as a car door slamming down the street.
To design this "low-boom" aircraft, NASA and Lockheed Martin returned to the basic principles of aerodynamics. The result is an airplane that is both incredibly advanced and elegantly simple.
"Those principles of physics, of aerodynamics, have been around since the beginning of time," said Lockheed Martin's X-59 program director, David Richardson. "This is what Mother Nature wants to see. Just like birds are perfectly designed, this airplane is being perfectly designed to fly supersonic as quiet as it can."
In a windowless hangar in the California high desert, workers have been assembling the X-59 and putting it through the paces for its first test flight. Up close, the needle-nosed airplane looked like it was pulled from the pages of a 1950s sci-fi comic -- all sweeping lines and unbroken curves, a narrow cockpit concealed in the center. Designed and built by NASA and Lockheed Martin, it's billed as the supersonic airplane of the future.
The goal is to convince regulators like the FAA that the ban on supersonic passenger travel over land can be overturned. That change could open the door to a future where supersonic travel is no longer just for fighter pilots, and flying faster than the speed of sound may be possible again for the first time since the Concorde was retired in 2003 .
The science of sound
To understand how a sonic boom works, you need to know a little something about the basic physics of sound.
Sound is essentially a wave of compressed air -- imagine it like a pulse in a slinky , moving from point A to point B at a speed of roughly 340 meters per second. When a plane flies through the air, it pushes air out in front of it, creating those compression waves.
But when a plane flies at supersonic speeds (above Mach 1), it's traveling faster than those waves of compressed air can move out of the way. As a result, the plane generates shock waves that travel down to the ground where they are perceived as a sonic boom.
When a plane flies, it pushes waves of compressed air out in all directions. When it flies at supersonic speeds (faster than the speed of sound), those waves coalesce and produce a shock wave that is heard on the ground as a sonic boom.
When a plane flies, it pushes waves of compressed air out in all directions. When it flies at supersonic speeds (faster than the speed of sound), those waves coalesce and produce a shock wave that is heard on the ground as a sonic boom.
Any big variation in shape on the body of the plane, like the cockpit jutting up at the front or the tail sticking up at the back of the plane, can produce a shockwave. To minimize the shockwaves that travel down to the ground, you need to change the shape of the plane and make it far more streamlined, smoothing out the variations in shape and spreading them out across a much longer body.
That's what NASA and Lockheed have done with the X-59. The plane is 99 feet, 7 inches long, but only carries one passenger; at over 30 feet long, the nose takes up roughly one-third of the plane and leads seamlessly to the swept-back wings and a single engine at the rear.
According to Larry Cliatt, NASA's acoustic testing technical lead for the X-59, all those features combine to make sure the shockwaves being produced midair are "well behaved."
"We want to keep [the shock waves] parallel and separated from each other so they don't combine into a loud sonic boom," said Cliatt. "So we're dragging out those volume changes, making them very gradual across the entire body of the airplane."
A new way of flying
The X-59 is so long and streamlined that its cockpit has no forward-facing window.
Instead, the pilot uses an External Vision System (XVS) created by NASA to fly the plane. The XVS uses two cameras above and below the aircraft to create a real-time view of the front of the plane shown on an HD screen. But the XVS also acts as a head-up display, or HUD, showing data such as altitude, airspeed and flight path.
At Armstrong, NASA has tested that XVS in its X-59 flight simulator. NASA test pilot Nils Larson will be one of the pilots who eventually flies the X-59 using the XVS and he showed me how the system works.
NASA test pilot Nils Larson in the X-59 flight simulator, using the same External Vision System that will be used in the final X-59 aircraft.
After spending the morning doing a routine test flight in one of NASA's F-15s, Larson stepped in from the 114-degree heat outside, back into the air conditioning, and put the flight sim through its paces. For Larson, the experience of flying with a cockpit window and using the XVS display isn't all that different.
The benefit comes with combining the real-world view from the cameras with the kind of data you see on a monochromatic head-up display in a fighter jet. The XVS lets pilots see flashing warnings or colored text over the horizon, things they wouldn't ordinarily see through a cockpit window.
"You use it just like you would any other window," Larson said. "But because it's a display, it actually gives us more capability than you might have if it was just a window."
The sonic thump
A Lockheed Martin technician works on a 11.5% scale model of the X-59's forebody during wind tunnel testing.
Throughout 2022, Lockheed and NASA have been conducting initial checks on the X-59, but the real test of the aircraft comes with the first flight. That happens in 2023 when in what's known as the "acoustic validation" phase, when NASA will fly the X-59 to ensure the sonic boom has been satisfactorily scaled back to a sonic thump.
NASA will send the X-59 up with an F-15 fighter jet that will act as a chase plane, measuring the shockwaves being produced by the aircraft midflight. And perhaps most impressive of all, NASA will capture images of the shockwaves -- a process that's known as schlieren photography.
Photographing a plane moving faster than the speed of sound is no easy feat.
"The X-59 has to eclipse the sun because we use the sun as a backdrop," said Cliatt, the acoustic testing lead. "All of that has to happen perfectly. It's like threading a needle to get that gorgeous image."
Schlieren images like this one can capture the shockwaves coming off supersonic aircraft midflight.
Schlieren images like this one can capture the shockwaves coming off supersonic aircraft midflight.
But the big decider will be the sound on the ground. In the acoustic testing phase, NASA will set up an array of microphones across a 30-mile-long stretch of the Mojave Desert in California to measure the sonic thump and make sure it's as quiet as intended.
After the X-59's big sound check comes the third stage of testing in 2025, when the aircraft will be flown over a handful of cities and towns across the United States to gauge the community response. NASA will then submit its data to regulators with the goal of changing the restrictions around supersonic flight.
After all, back in the '70s when the Concorde started flying and the FAA introduced its ban on commercial supersonic flight over land, noise was the problem. That limited Concorde to trans-Atlantic flights and ultimately sounded the death knell for the company. But if NASA can prove that supersonic planes can fly without the boom, it could open up supersonic travel to a new generation.
The X-59 could pave the way for private companies and airlines to reintroduce supersonic flights to everyday passengers, all across the world. According to Lockheed Martin's David Richardson, flights for the general public could come as soon as 2035. And they'll be a game changer.
"You don't just see this demand from high-end consumers, you see this from everybody -- everybody would like to 'get there' faster," he said.
Getting up close to the build of the X-59 at Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works.
The blink of an eye
Visiting the hangar of Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, I got a sense of the scale of the X-59 build. The aircraft looks more like a giant dart than a plane, with those swept-back wings and the nose that stretches out for yards and yards.
Richardson, who has hitherto worked on highly-classified projects for Lockheed, was my guide for the day, showing me around the scaffolding at the top of the plane to point out the electronics being installed by the engineering crew. He handed me a hard hat and took me underneath the body of the plane to show the sensors that will feed data back to the XVS. He let me pop up in the cavity where the landing gear will go and gaze out through the skeleton of the plane, looking out where the engine would later be installed.
For NASA's Larry Cliatt, the X-59 program has involved years of designing, testing and building that will all lead to one moment of truth during that first test flight.
"We're going to have a lot of people staring at data, waiting to see the very first sonic thump from the X-59 to make sure all of our work has paid off," says Cliatt. "You know, it's going to happen in the blink of an eye. A sonic boom is 200 milliseconds long. And that's what all of this is about -- 200 milliseconds."
How fast is supersonic flight, and why does it create sonic booms?
Aircraft that can travel faster than the speed of sound have evolved since 1947, even if the physics haven't changed.
By Rob Verger | Published May 1, 2023 6:00 PM EDT
To fly at supersonic speeds is to punch through an invisible threshold in the sky. Rocketing through the air at a rate faster than sound waves can travel through it means surpassing a specific airspeed, but that exact airspeed varies. On Mars, the speed of sound is different from the speed of sound on Earth. And on Earth, the speed of sound varies depending on the temperature of the air an aircraft is traveling through.
Breaking the so-called sound barrier in 1947 made Chuck Yeager famous. But today, if a person in a military jet flies faster than the speed of sound, it’s not a significant or even noticeable moment, at least from the perspective of the occupants of the aircraft. “Man, in the airplane you feel nothing,” says Jessica Peterson, a flight test engineer for the US Air Force’s Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. People on the ground may beg to differ, depending on how close they are to the plane.
Here’s what to know about the speed of supersonic flight, a type of travel that’s been inaccessible to civilians who want to experience it in an aircraft ever since the Concorde stopped flying in 2003.
Ripples in the water, shockwaves in the air
Traveling at supersonic speed involves cruising “faster than the sound waves can move out of the way,” says Edward Haering, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center who has been researching sonic booms since the 1990s.
One way to think about the topic is to picture a boat in the water. “If you’re in a rowboat, sitting on a lake, not moving, there might be some ripples that come out, but you’re not going any faster than the ripples are,” he says. “But if you’re in a motorboat or a sailboat, you’ll start to see a V-wake coming off the nose of your boat, because you’re going faster than those ripples can get out of the way.” That’s like a plane flying faster than the speed of sound.
But, he adds, a supersonic plane pushes through those ripples in three-dimensional space. “You have a cone of these disturbances that you’re pushing through,” he says.
The temperature of the air determines how fast sound waves move through it. In a zone of the atmosphere on Earth between about 36,000 feet up to around 65,600 feet, the temperature is consistent enough that the speed of sound theoretically stays about the same. And in that zone, on a typical day, the speed of sound is about 660 mph. That’s also referred to as Mach 1. Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound, would be about 1,320 mph in that altitude range. However, since a real-world day will likely be different from what’s considered standard, your actual speed when attempting to fly supersonic may vary.
[Related: How high do planes fly? It depends on if they’re going east or west. ]
If you wanted to fly a plane at supersonic speeds at lower altitudes, the speed of sound is faster in that warmer air. At 10,000 feet, supersonic flight begins at 735 mph, NASA says. The thicker air takes more work to fly through at those speeds, though.
For the record books: the first supersonic flight
Chuck Yeager became the first documented person to fly at supersonic speeds on October 14, 1947. He recalled in his autobiography, Yeager , that he was at 42,000 feet flying at 0.96 Mach on that autumn day. “I noted that the faster I got, the smoother the ride,” he wrote.
“Suddenly the Mach needle began to fluctuate. It went up to .965 Mach—then tipped right off the scale,” he recalled. “I thought I was seeing things! We were flying supersonic!” He learned afterwards that he had been going 700 mph, or 1.07 Mach.
Over the radio, from below, Yeagar wrote that people in a “tracking van interrupted to report that they heard what sounded like a distant rumble of thunder: my sonic boom!”
Why don’t we hear sonic booms anymore?
Supersonic flight causes those loud sonic booms for those below. That’s why the FAA banned supersonic civilian flight above the US and near its coasts. As NASA notes, this prohibition formally turned 50 years old in April 2023, and before it existed, people understandably did not like hearing sonic booms. In the 1950s and 60s, the space agency says, people in “Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, among others, all were exposed to sonic booms from military fighter jets and bombers flying overhead at high altitude.” And in 1968, one specific incident in Colorado, at the Air Force Academy, was especially destructive. The event happened on May 31, when a “fighter jet broke the sound barrier flying 50 feet over the school grounds,” NASA reports . “The sonic boom blew out 200 windows on the side of the iconic Air Force Chapel and injured a dozen people.”
Sonic booms happen thanks to shock waves forming off different features on the aircraft. For example, the canopy of a fighter jet, or the inlet for its engine, can produce them. The problem occurs because of the way those various shock waves join up, coalescing into two. “When they combine, they just get higher and higher pressure,” says Haering. The way they combine is for one shock wave to come from the front of the plane, and one from the rear. People on the ground will detect a “ boom , boom ,” Haering says.
Interestingly, the length of the aircraft matters in this case, affecting how far apart those booms are in time. The space shuttle , for example, measured more than 100 feet long. In that case, people would notice a “ boom… boom ,” Haering says. “And a very short plane, it’s booboom . And if it’s really short, and really far away, sometimes the time between those two booms [is] so short, you can’t really tell that there’s two distinct booms, so you just hear boom .”
[Related: How does a jet engine work? By running hot enough to melt its own innards. ]
The issue with these booms is leading NASA to develop a new experimental aircraft, along with Lockheed Martin, called the X-59 . Its goal is to fly faster than the speed of sound, but in a quieter way than a typical supersonic plane would. Remarkably, instead of a canopy for the pilot to see the scene in front of them, the aviator will rely on an external vision system —a monitor on the inside that shows what’s in front of the plane. NASA said that the testing wrapped up in 2021 for this design, which helps keep the aircraft sleek. The ultimate goal is to manage any shock waves coming off that aircraft through its design. “On the X-59, from the tip of the nose to the back of the tail, everything is tailored to try to keep those shock waves separated,” Haering says.
NASA says they plan to fly it this year, with the goal of seeing how much noise it makes and how people react to its sound signature. The X-59 could make a noise that’s “a lot like if your neighbor across the street slams their car door,” Haering speculates. “If you’re engaged in conversation, you probably wouldn’t even notice it.” But actual flights will be the test of that hypothesis.
The X-59 has a goal of flying at Mach 1.4, at an altitude of around 55,000 feet. Translated into miles per hour, that rate is 924 mph. Then imagine that the aircraft has a tailwind, and its ground speed could surpass 1,000 mph. (Note that winds in the atmosphere will affect a plane’s ground speed—the speed the plane is moving compared to the ground below. A tailwind will make it faster and a headwind will make it slower.)
At Edwards Air Force Base in California, supersonic corridors permit pilots to fly at Mach 1 or faster above certain altitudes. In one corridor, the aircraft must be at 30,000 feet or higher. In another, the Black Mountain Supersonic Corridor, the aircraft can be as low as 500 feet. Remember, the speed to fly supersonic will be higher at a low altitude than it will be at high altitudes, and it will take more effort to push through the denser air.
“From a flight-test perspective—so that’s what we do here at Edwards, and we’re focusing on testing the new aircraft, testing the new systems—we regularly go supersonic,” says Peterson, the flight test engineer at the US Air Force’s Test Pilot School.
[Related: Let’s talk about how planes fly ]
The fact that one of the supersonic corridors is over the base means that sonic booms are audible there, although the aircraft has to be above 30,000 feet. “We can boom the base, and we hear it all the time,” she adds.
She notes that in a recent flight in a T-38, when she broke the sound barrier at 32,000 feet, her aircraft had a ground speed of 665 mph. But at 14,000 feet, she was supersonic at a ground speed of 734 mph.
But there’s a difference between flying at supersonic speeds in a test scenario and doing it for operational reasons. Corey Florendo, a pilot and instructor also at the US Air Force Test Pilot School, notes that he’d do it “only as often as I need to,” during a real-world mission.
“When I go supersonic, I’m using a lot of gas,” he adds.
Supersonic flight thus remains available to the military in certain scenarios when they’re willing to burn the fuel, but not so for regular travelers. A Boeing 787 , for example, is designed to cruise at 85 percent the speed of sound. However, one company, called Boom Supersonic , aims to bring that type of flight back for commercial travel; their aircraft, which they call Overture, could fly in tests in 2027 . You may not want to hold your breath.
Joe Jewell, an associate professor at Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, reflects that supersonic flight still has a “mystique” to it.
“It’s still kind of a rare and special thing because the challenges that we collectively referred to as the sound barrier still are there, physically,” Jewell says. Pressure waves still accrue in front of the aircraft as it pushes through the air. “It’s still there, just the same as it was in 1947, we just know how to deal with it now.”
In the video below, watch an F-16 overtake a T-38; both aircraft are flying at supersonic speeds, and a subtle rocking motion is the only indication that shock waves are interacting with the aircraft. Courtesy Jessica Peterson and the US Air Force Test Pilot School.
Rob Verger is the former Technology Editor at Popular Science. His expertise is in covering aviation, transportation, and military tech. Contact the author here.
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April 8, 2022
Breakthrough in faster-than-sound jet engines
by Christina Nunez, Argonne National Laboratory
Almost 75 years ago, U.S. Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. Engineers have been pushing the boundaries of ultrafast flight ever since, attaining speeds most of us can only imagine.
Today, military fighter jets like the F-15 routinely surpass Mach 2, which is shorthand for twice the speed of sound. That's supersonic level. On a hypersonic flight—Mach 5 and beyond—an aircraft travels faster than 3,000 miles per hour. At that rate, you could make it from New York to Los Angeles on a lunch break.
The same propulsion technology that goes into rockets has made hypersonic speeds possible since the 1950s. But to make hypersonic flight more common and far less expensive than a rocket launch , engineers and scientists are working on advanced jet engine designs. These new concepts represent an enormous opportunity for commercial flight , space exploration and national defense: Hypersonic aircraft could serve as reusable launch vehicles for spacecraft, for example.
Before any aircraft is built and tested, computer simulations help determine what is possible. Researchers have long used computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to predict, among other things, how an aircraft in flight will interact with the forces around it. CFD is a scientific field devoted to numerically expressing the behavior of fluids such as air and water.
An aircraft capable of breaking the sound barrier brings new levels of complexity to an already computationally intense exercise. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are pioneering the use of artificial intelligence to streamline CFD simulations and accelerate the development of barrier-breaking aircraft.
The wild ride of supersonic flight produces similarly wild fluid dynamics. As it exceeds the speed of sound , the aircraft generates a shock wave containing air that's hotter, denser and higher in pressure than the surrounding air. At hypersonic speeds , the air friction created is so strong that it could melt parts of a conventional commercial plane.
CFD simulations must account for major shifts in air, not only around the plane, but also as it moves through the engine and interacts with fuel. Air-breathing jet engines, as they are called, draw in oxygen to burn fuel as they fly. In a conventional plane, fan blades push the air along. But at Mach 3 and up, the movement of the jet itself compresses the air. These aircraft designs, known as scramjets, are key to achieving levels of fuel efficiency that rocket propulsion cannot. But running them in hypersonic flight , it's been said, is like lighting a match in a hurricane and keeping it lit.
"Because the chemistry and turbulence interactions are so complex in these engines, scientists have needed to develop advanced combustion models and CFD codes to accurately and efficiently describe the combustion physics," said Sibendu Som, a study co-author and interim center director of Argonne's Center for Advanced Propulsion and Power Research.
To simulate how combustion behaves within this volatile environment, NASA has a hypersonic CFD code called VULCAN-CFD. The code processes multidimensional flamelet tables, where each flamelet represents a one-dimensional version of a flame. The data tables hold these different snapshots of burning fuel in one massive collection, which requires a large amount of computer memory to process. In a newly published study, Argonne scientists used machine learning techniques to reduce the intensive memory requirements and computational cost associated with simulating supersonic fuel combustion.
"Working with NASA gave us the opportunity to integrate our novel developments in a state-of-the-art CFD code, and also to further improve the developments for more efficient design and optimization of hypersonic jets," said Argonne computational scientist Sinan Demir, a study co-author.
The flamelet table, generated by Argonne-developed software, was used to train an artificial neural network. In an artificial neural network , which is a subset of machine learning, a computer derives insights from data the way a human brain would. Here, the network used values from the flamelet table to learn shortcuts to "answers" about how combustion behaves in supersonic engine environments.
The approach has been validated in previous studies for subsonic applications. The new research applies it to supersonic and hypersonic problems, using the high performance computing resources at Argonne's Laboratory Computing Resource Center. DOE's Office of Science and NASA's Langley Research Center provided funding.
"The partnership between Argonne and NASA is valuable because our models and software can be applied effectively to theirs," Demir said. "It's a way to do high-speed propulsion CFD simulations differently."
The paper detailing the new neural network framework, entitled "Deep neural network based unsteady flamelet progress variable approach in a supersonic combustor," was presented in early January at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech Forum.
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American Airlines bets on faster-than-sound jet travel—but it won’t be ready until 2029
American Airlines has set its sights on cutting flight times in half, with a purchase of planes so fast they’re capable of breaking the sound barrier.
American announced Tuesday that it had agreed to buy 20 Overture aircraft from Boom Supersonic, a U.S. company working to bring supersonic speeds back to commercial air travel.
American Airlines has paid a nonrefundable deposit on the aircraft, with an option to purchase an additional forty.
The value of the deal was not disclosed.
Under the terms of the agreement, Boom must meet industry standard operating performance and safety requirements before any of the planes are delivered to American.
Boom says its flagship Overture jet, designed to carry 65 to 80 passengers, is expected to reach its destinations at twice the speed of today’s fastest commercial aircraft and run on 100% sustainable aviation fuels.
The aircraft are slated to begin carrying commercial passengers in 2029.
Among the more than 600 routes the Overture is being designed to fly are New York to London, which Boom says would take just three and a half hours; L.A. to Honolulu, which the company says would take three hours; and San Francisco to Tokyo, which would take just six hours.
The Overture will be able to reach Mach 1.7 speeds above water, according to its manufacturer.
Mach numbers above one mean an object is traveling at supersonic speeds—that is, faster than the speed of sound. Airbus’s and Boeing’s commercial aircraft reach cruising speeds of around Mach 0.85 .
Derek Kerr, American’s chief financial officer, said in a press statement on Tuesday that the airline saw supersonic travel as an important part of its future.
“We are excited about how Boom will shape the future of travel both for our company and our customers,” he said.
Boom’s latest deal
Boom’s order from American is the latest in a string of high-profile deals the company has secured in recent years.
Rival U.S. airline United agreed last year to purchase 15 of Boom’s Overture aircraft, and at the beginning of this year, Boom landed a $60 million research and development partnership with the U.S. Air Force.
By 2020, Boom said it had already received 30 preorders for the Overture from Japan Airlines and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, the parent company of airline Virgin Atlantic.
How much will it cost to travel?
According to Boom, the cost of tickets for a flight aboard the Overture will be “comparable to today’s business class,” with airlines setting the final prices.
Supersonic aircraft fly at higher altitudes than existing commercial planes, meaning they fly “above most of the turbulence, allowing a smoother ride than on subsonic aircraft,” according to the company.
Passengers will not hear or feel anything when the plane breaks the sound barrier, Boom says.
The new Concorde?
Supersonic passenger travel became a thing of the past with the retirement of the Concorde in 2003 , with carriers British Airways and Air France attributing their decision to stop using the aircraft on slumping demand and high maintenance costs.
The Concorde set the record for the fastest transatlantic commercial flight when in 1996 it flew from New York to London in just two hours, 52 minutes, and 59 seconds with an average speed of 1,250 miles per hour.
Boom isn’t alone in working toward the reintroduction of supersonic air travel, however.
Among the companies working on supersonic passenger jets is U.S.-based Exosonic, which is developing a jet with top speeds of Mach 1.8 and was awarded a grant from the U.S. Air Force in 2020 to build a supersonic plane that could be the future Air Force One .
Meanwhile, Delaware-based startup Eon Aerospace has designed an aircraft that can transport passengers at speeds of up to Mach 1.9.
Last year, CNBC reported that Aerion Supersonic, a Nevada-based competitor, was shutting down because of financial constraints.
While some companies developing supersonic planes want to halve flight times, others are setting their sights on making even bigger strides when it comes to speeding up long-distance travel.
Houston-based Venus Aerospace is currently developing a hypersonic “space plane” aimed at increasing commercial travel speeds to Mach 9—nine times the speed of sound.
Beijing startup Space Transportation is also aiming to make hypersonic travel a reality with its own space plane, which would carry passengers at speeds of one mile per second .
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Bombardier says Mach 1 Global 8000 will be world's fastest private plane
Supersonic jet will take to the skies in 2025, revolutionising business travel.
Bombardier's Global 8000 will be the fastest and longest range private passenger jet in the world. All photos: Bombardier
Supersonic passenger flights could be back on the travel agenda soon after aircraft manufacturer Bombardier announced the world's fastest business jet.
The Global 8000 will be the world’s fastest and longest-range purpose-built private jet when it takes to the skies in 2025, the company said.
With a top operating speed of Mach 0.94, the Global 8000 is also capable of speeds above Mach 1.015 — officially faster than the speed of sound.
This capability was demonstrated last May in a Global 7500 test vehicle where the plane repeatedly hit supersonic speeds .
The world’s fastest private plane will also fly farther than any other in its class — more than 8,000 nautical miles — a few miles short of the world’s longest commercial flight from Singapore to New York.
The Global 8000 is expected to serve on routes to destinations including city pairings between Dubai and Houston, Singapore and Los Angeles, and London to Perth, Western Australia.
Flex wings and record-breaking engines
Passengers will have one of the smoothest rides, says Bombardier, thanks to a Smooth Flex Wing, allowing flight in any weather, from even the shortest runways.
Super-efficient Passport engines power the jet. These are the engines used on the Global 7500's record-breaking business flight from Sydney to Detroit using a single tank of fuel.
And with one of the healthiest cabins in the sky, according to Bombardier, the jet operates at a cabin altitude of 2,900 feet when flying at 41,000 feet. The Canadian company also ensures some of the fastest fresh air replacement systems on the market.
Inside there’s capacity for up to 19 passengers including four personalised suites, each designed to maximise space.
In-flight entertainment systems come with intuitive controls and high-speed connectivity. An entertainment cabin with jumbo 4k monitor is a good place for watching films, live sport, television shows or gaming.
The Principal Suite has a full-sized bed and an en suite bathroom with a stand-up shower.
To help guests arrive at their destination refreshed, a Soleil circadian lighting system works to reduce jet lag.
Nuage seats have floating bases and swivel functions as well as the industry’s first zero-gravity positioning, designed to help reduce muscle fatigue, especially on long-distance flights.
Development of the aircraft is continuing, and Bombardier says that operators who use the Global 7500 will benefit.
Performance enhancements found on the Global 8000 will be made available on earlier marques when the new jet goes into service.
Bombardier is one of many companies working towards supersonic passenger travel. US airline United announced plans to introduce supersonic flights before 2030, and Boom says it has plans to fly from Dubai to Boston in seven hours .
A builder backed by Boeing looking to develop a supersonic jet that could in theory take passengers from London to New York in less than an hour shut down operations last year after it was unable to secure additional funds to produce its AS2 business jet.
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When are jets allowed to go ‘boom,’ AKA, break the sound barrier?
Washington-area residents were startled Sunday afternoon when a D.C. Air National Guard F-16 fighter jet went supersonic in pursuit of an unresponsive Cessna business plane , letting loose a sonic boom that echoed across Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
The U.S. military routinely trains near the national capital region, practicing to intercept wayward aircraft and other threats along the East Coast. But those jets rarely break the sound barrier over land unless they face a real-world emergency, to prevent panic among unsuspecting residents on the ground and damage to the community around them.
Military pilots don’t need to zip around at supersonic speeds all the time; for instance, F-35A Lightning II pilots cruise around .9 Mach, or around 700 miles per hour.
Going faster than the speed of sound — around 760 miles per hour — helps pilots fire weapons smoothly in air-to-air combat training, such as those simulating offensive counter-air missions, said Heather Penney, a former F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot who now works as a defense policy expert at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Penney said they are allowed to break the sound barrier in a limited number of scenarios: over the ocean or on a training range where it won’t disrupt everyday life, or in an emergency with a superior’s approval.
And it comes in handy when a pilot needs to catch up with an out-of-place or unresponsive aircraft, so they have more time alongside the plane to assess whether it is a threat or not, Penney said. Most often, she said, people simply get lost or don’t know where they’re allowed to fly.
On Sunday, the New York-bound Cessna Citation business jet suddenly turned around over Long Island, prompting the military to scramble six fighter jets to intercept it. Its civilian pilot appeared to be slumped over and unresponsive, U.S. officials told the Associated Press of their conversations with the fighter pilots. The officials were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the military operation.
North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman John Ingle told Military Times this week that one F-16 that responded to the unresponsive Cessna made the jump to supersonic speed, though three others were also authorized to do so.
Two F-16s tasked to NORAD’s homeland defense mission flew alongside the Cessna over Virginia around 3:20 p.m., the Pentagon said. Military Times staff heard the sonic boom echo over Washington roughly ten minutes earlier. It’s unclear at what point the jets sped up to catch the unresponsive plane, or how long they escorted it; Ingle said NORAD is still establishing the timeline of events.
The go-ahead to exceed Mach 1 comes from the U.S.-focused branch of NORAD, which is responsible for monitoring and defending the continent’s skies.
“NORAD aircraft typically fly at speeds slower than those required to create a sonic boom. However, that could change depending on the mission and the need to respond in such a manner to provide decision-makers the necessary time to act,” Ingle said. “NORAD aircraft often operate within specified parameters when over land so as to mitigate sonic boom disturbances.”
On top of considering where a sonic boom might reverberate the strongest, officials have to consider the threat level, the atmospheric conditions and how high the jet is flying before approving supersonic flight.
Once a jet breaks the sound barrier, the sonic boom fans out like the wake behind a boat. As with a boat’s wake, the compressed air of a sonic boom is strongest near the jet and gets weaker as it fans out behind the aircraft. That’s why people closer to the F-16 heard and felt its roar more intensely than those farther away, Penney said.
And the jet pilots don’t feel a sonic boom from the cockpit, just as passengers on a boat don’t feel the effects of the wake behind them, she added.
NORAD doesn’t alert other agencies that those shockwaves may be coming because of the unpredictability of military responses and the urgency of situations that would require supersonic flight, Ingle said.
That leaves local and federal government agencies, meteorologists, journalists and more to rule out other possible explanations, like routine explosions on a military installation, thunder or an attack.
In general, Penney said, fighter pilots aren’t supposed to fly that fast near Washington, D.C., at all, to protect the multitude of government buildings and avoid unnecessary alarm.
The wayward plane ultimately crashed near the George Washington National Forest in Virginia, about 160 miles southwest of Washington, shortly after 3:30 p.m.
The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration are investigating Sunday’s crash, which killed the pilot and three passengers. North Carolina resident John Rumpel, the plane’s owner, told The New York Times that his daughter, 2-year-old granddaughter and a nanny were on the flight.
Penney said the military’s decision to go fast and inspect the plane in question, rather than jumping to conclusions and shooting down a jet with civilians aboard, shows the nation’s air defenses are working properly.
“The point of our air defense systems is to protect our national infrastructure ... not to get trigger-happy,” she said.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.
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What Is a Sonic Boom? Unraveling the Thunderous Phenomenon
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Imagine you're enjoying a quiet day outdoors, perhaps sipping lemonade on your front porch, when suddenly — BOOM! A startling, thunderous noise reverberates through the air. No, it's not an explosion or a clap of thunder. It's something more awe-inducing: a sonic boom.
But what is a sonic boom , exactly? There's a whole science behind this auditory spectacle, and it involves aircraft flying supersonic, breaking the sound barrier, and creating a ripple effect in the air pressure waves around them.
The Basic Science: How Sound Waves Create a Sonic Boom
Factors affecting sonic booms, sound waves.
Imagine tossing a pebble into a pond; ripples will form in concentric circles, radiating outward. Sound waves function similarly, spreading out from their source. When an aircraft is flying at subsonic speeds, sound waves can easily disperse forward, and everything's chill.
Breaking the Sound Barrier
Now, think about a boat zooming across the pond so fast that it outruns those water waves, creating a singular, larger wave — a wake.
Similarly, when an airplane reaches supersonic speeds, it surpasses the speed of sound, currently traveling at approximately 700 mph (1,127 km) in air at sea level. This is when the aircraft "breaks" the sound barrier.
Birth of the Sonic Boom
As the aircraft maintains supersonic speed, all the sound waves that should've dispersed in front of it pile up and form shock waves. When these pressure waves combine, a single shock wave forms. A sonic boom is born, rolling across the sonic boom path like an acoustic carpet, making its presence known in the sonic boom impact area below.
Altitude and Flight Path
The sonic boom path depends on the aircraft's altitude and flight path. The higher the aircraft flies, the greater the horizontal distance the sonic boom will cover, also known as the boom's lateral spread.
Air Temperature and Pressure
As the air temperature decreases with altitude, it can affect how the shock wave forms. Temperature gradients help bend the path of the sonic boom, making it less intense over greater distances. Additionally, air pressure at different altitudes can influence the shape of the sonic boom carpet.
The aircraft's length and speed relative to the speed of sound can alter the sonic boom's characteristics. Most fighter-sized aircraft produce a double boom, while larger aircraft might generate more complex boom patterns.
Realistic Flight Conditions
Under more realistic flight conditions, factors like the aircraft flight track, sea level and air temperature can affect the lateral boom spread and its impact area.
Sonic Boom FAQ
What does the term 'sonic boom' mean, why is a sonic boom so loud, can a sonic boom hurt you, is making a sonic boom illegal, lots more information, related howstuffworks articles.
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March 11, 2002
What happens when an aircraft breaks the sound barrier?
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Tobias Rossmann, a research engineer with Advanced Projects Research and a visiting researcher at the California Institute of Technology, provides the following explanation.
U.S. Navy Ensign John Gay captured one of the best images ever taken of a sonic boom (the breaking of the sound barrier) in 1999. He snapped a photo of an F/A-18 Hornet on a humid day from the weather deck of the USS Constellation in the Pacific Ocean ( see image ). Because aircraft wings generate both low-pressure regions (because of lift) and amplified low-pressure disturbances, large low-pressure regions exist near the aircraft, especially under sonic flight conditions. The lowered pressure condenses the water in the air, creating a vapor cloud. As the jet produces these pressure waves and propagates ahead of them, the regions of lower pressure are usually strongest behind the nose of the jet, on the wings and body. As the aircraft continues to speed up, the vapor cloud will appear farther toward the rear of the aircraft. Then, just as the aircraft bursts through the sound barrier, the air is locally disturbed by the resulting shock wave and the condensation/vapor cloud disappears. Ensign Gay snapped his photo at the moment he heard the boom, just before the cloud vanished. Thus, it literally appears as if the F-18 is pushing through the sound barrier at the instant the photo was taken.
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Nasa, lockheed martin reveal x-59 quiet supersonic aircraft.
Abbey A. Donaldson
NASA and Lockheed Martin formally debuted the agency’s X-59 quiet supersonic aircraft Friday. Using this one-of-a-kind experimental airplane, NASA aims to gather data that could revolutionize air travel, paving the way for a new generation of commercial aircraft that can travel faster than the speed of sound.
“This is a major accomplishment made possible only through the hard work and ingenuity from NASA and the entire X-59 team,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “In just a few short years we’ve gone from an ambitious concept to reality. NASA’s X-59 will help change the way we travel, bringing us closer together in much less time.”
Melroy and other senior officials revealed the aircraft during a ceremony hosted by prime contractor Lockheed Martin Skunk Works at its Palmdale, California facility.
The X-59 is at the center of NASA’s Quesst mission, which focuses on providing data to help regulators reconsider rules that prohibit commercial supersonic flight over land. For 50 years, the U.S. and other nations have prohibited such flights because of the disturbance caused by loud, startling sonic booms on the communities below. The X-59 is expected to fly at 1.4 times the speed of sound, or 925 mph. Its design, shaping and technologies will allow the aircraft to achieve these speeds while generating a quieter sonic thump.
“It’s thrilling to consider the level of ambition behind Quesst and its potential benefits,” said Bob Pearce, associate administrator for aeronautics research at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “NASA will share the data and technology we generate from this one-of-a-kind mission with regulators and with industry. By demonstrating the possibility of quiet commercial supersonic travel over land, we seek to open new commercial markets for U.S. companies and benefit travelers around the world.”
With rollout complete, the Quesst team will shift to its next steps in preparation for first flight: integrated systems testing, engine runs, and taxi testing for the X-59.
The aircraft is set to take off for the first time later this year, followed by its first quiet supersonic flight. The Quesst team will conduct several of the aircraft’s flight tests at Skunk Works before transferring it to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, which will serve as its base of operations.
“Across both teams, talented, dedicated, and passionate scientists, engineers, and production artisans have collaborated to develop and produce this aircraft,” said John Clark, vice president and general manager at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. “We’re honored to be a part of this journey to shape the future of supersonic travel over land alongside NASA and our suppliers.”
Once NASA completes flight tests, the agency will fly the aircraft over several to-be-selected cities across the U.S., collecting input about the sound the X-59 generates and how people perceive it. NASA will provide that data to the Federal Aviation Administration and international regulators.
The X-59 is a unique experimental airplane, not a prototype – its technologies are meant to inform future generations of quiet supersonic aircraft.
At 99.7 feet long and 29.5 feet wide, the aircraft’s shape and the technological advancements it houses will make quiet supersonic flight possible. The X-59’s thin, tapered nose accounts for almost a third of its length and will break up the shock waves that would ordinarily result in a supersonic aircraft causing a sonic boom.
Due to this configuration, the cockpit is located almost halfway down the length of the aircraft – and does not have a forward-facing window. Instead, the Quesst team developed the eXternal Vision System, a series of high-resolution cameras feeding a 4K monitor in the cockpit.
The Quesst team also designed the aircraft with its engine mounted on top and gave it a smooth underside to help keep shockwaves from merging behind the aircraft and causing a sonic boom.
For more information about Quesst, visit:
Rob Margetta Headquarters, Washington 202-763-5012 [email protected]
Sasha Ellis Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia 757-864-5473 [email protected]
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Here's what happens during a sonic boom
- A sonic boom is the loud noise that results when something breaks the sound barrier.
- You break the barrier by traveling faster than the speed of sound, which is 768 mph at sea level.
- Supersonic flight is banned above US cities because it can produce inconvenient noises and tremors.
An F-16 scrambled to intercept a nonresponsive plane on Sunday, and the fighter jet caused a sonic boom heard in the DC area.
A sonic boom is a loud noise that people on the ground can hear when an aircraft, for example, breaks the sound barrier by traveling faster than the speed of sound.
Supersonic flight is banned over land in the US without special government authorization because of the inconvenient noises and tremors it can produce.
Here's what happens when a plane breaks the sound barrier:
When a plane goes fast enough, it compresses the air it's flying through so much that it can change its density, creating shock waves in the shape of a cone.
These shock waves act just like the wake behind a boat, which happens because it disrupts the water by moving faster than the water waves were moving.
Air pressure right at the tip of the cone in front of the plane is normal, while the pressure inside the cone is high because of the plane passing so quickly through it and pushing the atoms of air together.
Since the plane concentrates the sound wave energy into one place, you hear it all at once — producing a "boom" noise instead of the typical sound of a jet flying by.
NASA developed a way to see supersonic shock waves, and the images are gorgeous
NASA and the US Air Force have been trying to visualize this effect for years so they can build better supersonic aircraft and enable them to go faster than the speed of sound.
Until recently, these kinds of tests were contained to wind tunnels on the ground.
There, researchers used the Schlieren technique , invented by German physicist August Toepler in 1864, to understand more about how air travels around supersonic aircraft.
Schlieren imaging is a way to see the differences in air density, using a particular setup of lenses and cameras.
Decades later, NASA researchers have adapted this method to visualize supersonic aircraft in flight .
Bringing the Schlieren method into the air has been challenging because the aircraft carrying the imaging equipment has to fly right above the plane it's recording, and travel just as fast — which, during supersonic imaging, is faster than the speed of sound.
The T-38C, a supersonic US Air Force training jet that NASA imaged, traveled at a top speed of Mach 1.09 during the tests. (Mach 1 is the speed of sound, which is about 768 mph at sea level.)
But the tricky maneuvering was worth it for these gorgeous images, showing the shock wave of the T-38 flying over the Mojave Desert:
Here's another Schlieren image visualizing the supersonic flow of the T-38 jet in flight:
Understanding more about how supersonic aircraft affect the air around them could help develop ways to make planes quiet enough for commercial travel, opening the door to make the trip from New York to London a whole lot faster .
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Breaking the sound barrier: the supersonic era of fighter jets.
A rocket-powered Bell X-1 was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier.
The first person to fly an aircraft faster than the speed of sound was United States Air Force (USAF) Captain Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager. On October 14, 1947, Captain Yeager climbed aboard his Bell X-1 rocket-powered plane for a test flight over the Rodgers Dry Lake in Southern California.
Housed inside the bomb bay of a Boeing B-29 bomber, the WWII-era plane took off and climbed to 20,000 before releasing the Bell X-1. The rocket-powered jet immediately climbed to 42,000 feet in preparation for its record-breaking flight. As Yeager increased the power, the aircraft reached a speed of Mach 1.06 to become the first plane to fly faster than sound speed.
While it all sounds inspiring, the transition to supersonic flight was uneventful and only lasted 20 seconds. Once Yeager had broken the sound barrier, he cut the power and glided down safely, landing on the lake bed. While the Bell X-1 flights solved the challenge of flying faster than sound, it was several years before the US military had a supersonic fighter.
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The F-100 Super Sabre was the first supersonic fighter
Designed and built by North American Aviation, the F-100 Super Sabre became the first supersonic fighter jet when it entered service with the USAF in September 1954. Widely used during the Vietnam War (1955-1975), the F-100 Super Sabre was eventually replaced by the all-weather McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II in the 1960s.
Soviet Union supersonic flight
Following the capture of Berlin by Soviet forces in the spring of 1945, the victors discovered a vast amount of information about advanced German rocket technology. They were also able to take an experimental DFS 346 from the Siebel aircraft factory in Halle back to the Soviet Union.
Calling the aircraft the "Samolyot 346," the Soviets used an American B-29 that had made an emergency landing in Siberia during the war to launch the rocket-powered plane. While the Soviets claim to have been the first to break the sound barrier, no evidence supports it.
After the war, Mikoyan-Gurevich began building a single-seat fighter powered by reverse-engineered BMW 003 engines called the Mig-9. Over the years, the plane was developed further to become the MiG-19. The MiG-19 became the Soviet's first supersonic fighter when it entered military service in the summer of 1955.
European supersonic fighters
During WWII, the British were working on a jet fighter, but nothing came to fruition until English Electric told the Ministry of Defense that it could build a plane capable of flying faster than the speed of sound in 1947. The English Electric Lightning made its maiden flight on August 4, 1954, and a week later broke the sound barrier for the first time.
Eager to rebuild its aircraft industry following the end of the war, the French government told Dassault that it was to concentrate on building military planes and Sud Aviation passenger aircraft. Powered by a single Rolls-Royce Avon RA.7R jet engine, the Dassault Super Mystère made its maiden flight on March 2, 1954, and a day later became the first French-built aircraft to fly faster than the speed of sound.
Twice the speed of sound
Created during the Cold War to be a fighter capable of flying twice the speed of sound, the Lockheed F-104A Starfighter made its maiden flight on March 4, 1954.
The first production Starfighter entered service with the USAF in January 1958. Six years later, a more advanced version of the Starfighter set a new world speed record when it flew faster than Mach 2 in May 1964.
NASA’s supersonic passenger plane one step closer to takeoff
By Dean Murray via SWNS
A 'son of Concorde' set to fly from New York in 1.5 hours is a step closer to take-off.
NASA’s X-59 quiet supersonic aircraft has been moved to the paint barn at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works’ facility in Palmdale, California, say the space agency.
Once painted, the team will take final measurements of its weight and exact shape to improve computer modeling.
The supersonic passenger plane aims to fly faster than the speed of sound, at almost twice as fast as Concorde.
Engineers are aiming to reduce the sound of the typical sonic boom to a sonic thump to minimize disruption to people on the ground.
NASA said in August they have identified potential passenger markets in about fifty established routes that connect cities.
It is hoped one route would see flights from New York City to London up to four times faster than what’s currently possible.
NASA says the aircraft made the move to the paint barn on 14 November, adding: "The X-59’s paint scheme will include a mainly white body, a NASA “sonic blue” underside, and red accents on the wings.
"The paint doesn’t just add cosmetic value. It also serves a purpose – the paint helps to protect the aircraft from moisture and corrosion and includes key safety markings to assist with ground and flight operations."
Cathy Bahm, the low boom flight demonstrator project manager, said: "We are incredibly excited to reach this step in the mission. When the X-59 emerges from the paint barn with fresh paint and livery, I expect the moment to take my breath away because I’ll see our vision coming to life.
"The year ahead will be a big one for the X-59, and it will be thrilling for the outside of the aircraft to finally match the spectacular mission ahead.”
The aircraft is the centerpiece of NASA’s Quesst mission, through which NASA will fly the X-59 over several to-be-selected U.S. communities and gather data about people’s perceptions of the sound it makes.
NASA will provide that data to regulators which could potentially adjust current rules that prohibit commercial supersonic flight over land.
Earlier this year, the space agency investigated the business case for supersonic passenger air travel aboard aircraft that could theoretically travel between Mach 2 and Mach 4 (1,535-3,045 mph at sea level).
By comparison, today’s larger airliners cruise at roughly 600 mph, or about 80% of the speed of sound.
Concorde had a maximum cruising speed of 2,179 km (1,354 miles) per hour, or Mach 2.04.
The post NASA’s supersonic passenger plane one step closer to takeoff appeared first on Talker .
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Flying Faster Than the Speed of Sound
The future of flight is here..
(Denis Belitsky / Shutterrstock.com)
Mankind has achieved amazing technological developments in the last century. We can reach the very limits of the Earth’s atmosphere and enter orbit in under 10 minutes. We can reach someone on the other side of the planet via telephone, and share data with them in under one second.
According to NASA , space shuttles enter orbit by traveling upwards at the astounding speed of 17,500 miles per hour. By contrast, the average passenger jet flies at around 500 miles per hour, reported NBC News . Supersonic airplanes (those that travel faster than the speed of sound) do exist, but they are currently too expensive to be practical for the average traveler. However, a number of companies are trying to change this, experimenting with new supersonic technology that would make super-speed travel as cheap as a business class ticket costs today, and much more environmentally-friendly.
Here are some companies that are looking to reach the final frontier — flights from New York to London in under three hours.
The retired Concorde Supersonic passenger airplanes aren’t a new idea. Yahoo shares the story of the Concorde passenger jet, a supersonic airplane that hit the market in the 1970’s. The Concorde flew at roughly the speed of Mach 2.0, around 1,500 miles per hour. It was also considered one of the safest airplanes, racking up only one crash in its nearly three decades of operation, with that crash caused by debris on the runway, and not due to any flaw in the aircraft’s design.
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Although the Concorde could carry up to 100 passengers and could fly from London to New York in three hours, it never really became profitable. Designing the Concorde turned out to be extremely expensive. Additionally, the supersonic jet proved to be incredibly fuel inefficient. It took the Concorde 45,195 pounds of jet fuel per hour to fly its 100 passengers around. By contrast, the Airbus A380, a subsonic passenger jet, can ferry 615 passengers through the skies, while requiring only 26,455 pounds of fuel per hour.
Both the high cost of development and the cost of fueling the jet, meant that riding the Concorde was expensive. At its peak, AirFrance sold Concorde tickets for $12,000 a seat! A few years after the deadly crash caused by runway debris, in 2003, the Concorde was discontinued and the age of supersonic passenger travel halted.
A dual engine Two decades after the Concorde’s grounding, the dream of supersonic passenger flight has yet to die. There are a number of companies jockeying to be the first to be approved to whisk passengers across the globe at thousands of miles per hour.
Hermeus is one company working to make not just supersonic passenger flights a practical reality, but actually hypersonic travel, Freethink reports. Hypersonic aircrafts travel at Mach 5, five times the speed of sound, or nearly 4,000 miles per hour!
In order to make affordable hypersonic travel a reality, Hermeus is leaning on a new type of engine. The traditional airplane engine, CNN Travel reports, is called a turbojet and it works by compressing the air to release its energy potential, and then igniting it. The superheated air flows out of the back of the engine, pushing the airplane forward in accordance with Newton’s third law.
By contrast, supersonic airplanes usually use a ramjet engine, which is exactly what it sounds like. Because the airplane is traveling so fast, the air naturally compresses upon entering the engine, therefore, the ramjet merely rams the air, and doesn’t contain a compressor.
According to Freethink, ramjets don’t work efficiently below supersonic speeds. For maximum efficiency, an airplane would need to be optimized to fly at both subsonic and supersonic speeds. To this end, Hermeus is working on a TBCC or “turbine-based combined cycle” engine. The TBCC includes both components, the ramjet and the turbo jet. The turbo jet kicks in during takeoff and landing, and the ramjet does the heavy lift at cruising altitude.
“The turbojet portion and the ramjet portion by themselves are mature technologies that we’ve been using for 50 years,” CEO AJ Piplica told Freethink, “The trick is to put them together, so we designed our own architecture around an off-the-shelf turbojet engine and then built out from there.”
Net carbon zero Hermeus isn’t the only company racing to create a supersonic passenger jet, Vox reports. Boom Supersonic, is a startup that promises speeds that are twice as fast as conventional airplanes travel at. Not only that, but Boom promises to rely only on sustainable jet fuel, sourced from organic or waste sources. The company pledges that they will have airplanes with net-zero carbon emission levels.
Boom has some fans in the aircraft industry. American Airlines has already said they are interested in buying at least 20 of Boom’s planes, and United Airlines has announced they will buy 15 others. Boom hopes to have their first airplanes flying in the next few years.
Taking to the skies by 2023 Investors are also interested in the supersonic race, CNBC reports. Several prominent investors, including Sam Altman and Peter Thiel, have bought into Hermeus’s vision.
Hermeus’s plan is to get their first, small scale prototype, Quarterhorse, flying by 2023. But, there are a few issues other than design that they, and other supersonic vendors, will need to address. CNN reports that currently the FAA doesn’t allow overland supersonic flight, because of the loud sonic boom that could be disruptive to people living below. However, there may be exceptions, allowing traveling across the ocean. Other supersonic startups are working on quieter supersonic models.
Some of Hermeus’s competitors, like Boom, who are also working on supersonic passenger jets, have pledged to become FAA certified in the next few years, and in the airports by 2029. It’s not clear if this is a realistic deadline, since it takes conventional airplane models upwards of five years to gain certification.
What is definitely clear, however, is that there is a lot of interest in superspeed travel, and a number of innovators working on efficient and customer-friendly supersonic travel solutions. Nicole Viola, the project coordinator of the Stratofly consortium, another player in the hypersonic travel race, tells NBC News, “We want to go to Mars but still we have huge distances [separating us] here on Earth.” Maybe within the next few decades, we will be able to bridge those distances, and make our way around the planet faster than the speed of sound.
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