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June 18, 2009

Will hypersonic flight take off?

Posted: 08:51 AM ET

I recently spent a miserable 10 hours on a flight from Europe to the U.S. and it made me think of how wonderful it would have been to be able to take the Concorde and cut that time in half.

My misery, and a conversation with a colleague about it, inspired an article on the status of supersonic flight six years after the Concorde fleet was retired from service.

Those planes flew at twice the speed of sound, but what if you could travel even faster?

Research continues into hypersonic flight, defined as least five times faster than the speed of sound. The first human to travel at hypersonic speeds was Russian Major Yuri Gagarin 1961 during the world's first piloted orbital flight, according to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission.

Future generations might one day zip around the globe in planes that reach those speeds with the help of supersonic combustion ramjets. Also known as scramjets, these engines use external air for combustion, according to NASA.

But there are lots of obstacles to overcome.

“It really comes down to the faster you go, the higher the temperatures associated with the external shape of the airplane,” said Peter Coen, principal investigator for NASA’s supersonic fundamental aeronautics program.

To illustrate, the temperature on the surface of an object that is traveling at five times the speed of sound reaches 1,800° F, according to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission.

“That really requires an airframe that has the life that would be associated with commercial success. That material has not been envisioned yet, never mind invented,” Coen said.

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Filed under: Aviation • NASA


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John S   June 18th, 2009 11:17 am ET

The other major hurdle associated with a fleet of hypersonic aircraft is at the optimal altitude for hypersonic flight, the NOx produced by the engine will destroy atmospheric ozone.

A few planes wouldn't do very much, but a fleet of 100, flying every day, would do substantial harm.


mesfin birke   June 18th, 2009 1:13 pm ET

I was wondering with amazement to notice the demise of such human-engineering feet. It was not for lack of further development in the containment of the "Boom" effect that led to the concord banning, rather it seems to egotistical politics from those nations who wanted to be the ones to have developed and used it before the franco-english venture did. I always fantasized flying a concord flight in a transatlantic trip. My dream didn't to fruition.


Ron   June 18th, 2009 1:33 pm ET

For the love of god can we stop and think about the ****** noise. I bought a house in the country so I can live in peace. The Jets go by, motorcyclists made the excuse that people can't see them unless they roar down the road which is BS. Now people who want to pay 3 times as much to fly don't care if the send supersonic shock waves through my babies bedroom. Your freedom ends at my sphere of self direction. Get over it or see me in court.


Kevin   June 18th, 2009 2:59 pm ET

The Space Shuttle thermal protection system (TPS) is the barrier that protects the Space Shuttle Orbiter during the searing 1650 °C (3000 °F) heat of atmospheric reentry. A secondary goal is to protect from the heat and cold of space while on orbit. [1] The TPS covers essentially the entire orbiter surface, and consists of seven different materials in varying locations based on amount of required heat protection:

Reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC), used in the nose cap and wing leading edges. Used where reentry temperature exceeds 1260 °C (2300 °F).
High-temperature reusable surface insulation (HRSI) tiles, used on the orbiter underside. Made of coated LI-900 Silica ceramics. Used where reentry temperature is below 1260 °C.
Fibrous refractory composite insulation (FRCI) tiles, used to provide improved strength, durability, resistance to coating cracking and weight reduction. Some HRSI tiles were replaced by this type.
Flexible Insulation Blankets (FIB), a quilted, flexible blanket-like surface insulation. Used where reentry temperature is below 649 °C (1200 °F).
Low-temperature Reusable Surface Insulation (LRSI) tiles, formerly used on the upper fuselage, but now mostly replaced by FIB. Used in temperature ranges roughly similar to FIB.
Toughened unipiece fibrous insulation (TUFI) tiles, a stronger, tougher tile which came into use in 1996. Used in high and low temperature areas.
Felt reusable surface insulation (FRSI). White Nomex felt blankets on the upper payload bay doors, portions of the midfuselage and aft fuselage sides, portions of the upper wing surface and a portion of the OMS/RCS pods. Used where temperatures stay below 371 °C (700 °F).
Each type of TPS has specific heat protection, impact resistance, and weight characteristics, which determine the locations where it is used and the amount used.


Skybot   June 18th, 2009 3:50 pm ET

Anyone ever stood under an SR-71 going Mach2 at 40,000 feet? I did at the Edwards AFB air show. I hardly felt or heard a thing. I was actually quite disappointed. That got me thinking, is that what people were complaining about when our government banned supersonic flight accross the US? I would have hardly noticed it if I wasn't listening for it. We would definatly want these guys to slow down and be sub-sonic if they got lower, an SR-71 at 500 feet practicly nocked my Dad off the road in Mojave.


Raul   June 18th, 2009 3:57 pm ET

hurricane proof glass hello!


Raul   June 18th, 2009 3:58 pm ET

how about giant submarines like cruise ships? that can go under water at faster speeds?


Bryan   June 18th, 2009 4:08 pm ET

Wow, Ron, I wasn't aware the world revolved around you...


Andy   June 18th, 2009 4:21 pm ET

Exactly Ron! Supersonic or hypersonic travel will not be feasible until the sonic boom and ozone issues are resolved!


Siva Toronto   June 18th, 2009 4:49 pm ET

It will be cool. Will definitly try it if available. Once in a life wanna travel in hypersonic speed and if possible trip to the outer atmosphere (Space). Experience which I cannot ferget...


steve   June 18th, 2009 5:03 pm ET

settle down ron.... continue your reading through the news articles and you'll find they are working on reducing/eliminating the sonic boom associated with supersonic flight. it's still a long way off, but they are indeed working on it. perhaps the loudest you'll hear in the future will be something along the line of thunder at great distance. chances are they'll have it quieted down so much that it will disappear into the background noise (motorcycles and your baby's crying).

concorde stopped flying mainly due to high costs associated with keeping those planes flying. $10,000 for one round trip ticket ....


Patrick   June 18th, 2009 5:24 pm ET

Supersonic travel has been and always will be a gimmick. The determining factor in anything the airline industry does is the bottom line, and so while they may have supersonic flights to improve their public image, supersonic travel will never become inexpensive enough to become mainstream.

My prediction is thus: supersonic flight will wholly be eclipsed by hypersonic travel due to the potential for increased fuel efficiency and elimination of disruptive noise. Once hypersonic technologies become economically feasible, supersonic travel will fall to the wayside and become but a footnote in the history books.


Eric   June 18th, 2009 6:20 pm ET

What about the devastating environmental impact? Imagine how much more fuel will be needed and how much more carbon dioxide will be emitted! Aviation is already one of the dirtiest industries. I can't see this helping.


Tod   June 18th, 2009 6:26 pm ET

Ron, you are very short sighted. And your comment about a law suit is typical of you people. That's right, if you don't get your way take your ball and go home, then initiate a vindictive lawsuit out of spite. Everyone that doesn't share your opinion is wrong, and even those that do aren't quite as smart as you, right?


Dr. Jones   June 18th, 2009 7:28 pm ET

SCRAM Jet (supersonic combustible ramjet) Used oxidizer input fuel injection to allow the commercial craft to accelerate to mach 2+ speeds without "punching" through the sound barrier and creating the shockwave.

No NOx is produced from a scram jet engine whereas the concept and functionality of the engine rests on compressing and then "ramming" all oxidized air and ignite it leaving no after products or exhaust.

Glad to see we can still think as Americans rather than just blurting out our emotions and thoughts.


Walt   June 18th, 2009 10:11 pm ET

"I recently spent a miserable 10 hours on a flight...."

The key here is not "10 hours" but "miserable". I flew often transpacific. That's *16* hours LA to Sydney, against the jet stream! Bad? Pleasant, because I was in business class and never checked luggage. I had a gourmet meal, slept eight hours, and had another gourmet meal. When I landed, I left–no waiting for some brain dead airline to deliver my baggage.

Okay, the Type-A personalities and bean counters aren't going to like this, but it's far better to take a day off work than to arrive tired and jet slagged, and supersonic jets won't solve the problem. Even if you drop transit time to a couple hours, there's all that hassle at the airport here and there! How many bad deals have closed because the key people were off their game? Cerebus buying Chrysler? A day off can make you more productive, or your vacation enjoyable instead of stressful What is needed is:
* Cabins at near-sea-level pressure, not at about 1/3 sea level: dehydrating, borderline-altitude-sickness pressure.
* Cabin attendants pushing, not hoarding, liquids and other refreshments.
* Enough space that a human–not a chimp or koala–can be comfortable sleeping in it.
* No stress-test airports that tire you out before you even get on the plane.

Those who traveled pre-9/11 remember when air travel used to be a pleasure, not a burden. We can get back to that, and it's a far better plan than substituting 15 or 20 hours of airline torture with only 5 or 8.


Dr. Forbin   June 18th, 2009 11:33 pm ET

Eric, the environmental impact of passenger jets is small when compared to automobile emissions and the smoke stacks that belch out pollutants. With jet engines, they have progressed more in efficiency compared to the other two by far. While automobiles are turning to alternative fuels the pollution of jet aircraft will become a mute point.
Even though the rules for flying supersonic over the continental U.S. for some time, there is a need to do so over the oceans. Six hours to fly over the Atlantic and at least eight over the Pacific?!? Oh please... Bring on supersonic travel! The air carriers will see the need once it starts happening.


John   June 19th, 2009 1:39 am ET

Ron, I am sure that noise is not the reason you ran off to the country with that comment you wrote. It seems to me you left because no one agreed to your views. Stop complaining. If your that ill about noise, there is no telling what else sets you off. Hopefully a crying baby doesn't. Actually, what will be good for you, move to Iran or North Korea. In one, you can complain all you want with thousands of other people. In the other, you don't have to worry about technology or noise. I am sure either one will make you happy.


Walt   June 19th, 2009 8:38 am ET

John S, the same warnings were made about the Space Shuttle. None of which, ever became a real problem. The Space Shuttle was way too expensive to fly all that frequently. A mach-5 passenger jet would have the same fate.


Bart   June 19th, 2009 10:46 am ET

Walt, while I wouldn't say flying pre-9/11 was a pleasure, it certainly was a much less wretched experience than now. I flew back and forth a lot between the Midwest and the East Coast earlier this decade when I was in college, and one day I tracked door-to-door travel time: it was over 12 hours, versus ten or so to drive. If there were delays, those 12 hours could easily turn into 16, 20, or more. You can guess how many times I flew after that, and I'm not alone.

If the airlines are having trouble retaining customers because regulatory requirements make people too miserable to fly, then they should be lobbying the government to reform or repeal those requirements, not begging for handouts.


Cheyanne   June 19th, 2009 11:05 am ET

Sooner the better


Stuart   June 19th, 2009 1:53 pm ET

We have more important things to research and spend money on such as how to give illegal aliens social services in our country; legal fees for criminal low-life; and supporting an inept educational system that caters to low ethnic standards and values. Forget about scientific research and its promises for the future.


Sean   June 19th, 2009 5:47 pm ET

Yes, airlines see the bottom line as the real measure of success, but that is to be expected. They are a business to make money, not produce technical achievements. To wax-nostalgic over the pre-9/11 days does not change the fact that the world today is different than it was 10 years ago and these procedures are necessary for the safety of air travelers. I guarantee if planes continued to fall victim to terrorist attacks, most airlines would be driven out of business.

There are still far too many questions and uncertainties to consider an economically viable hypersonic transport in the next 40 years, but that is not to say that it should not be looked into, there are many opportunities for off-shoot designs for payload delivery to low orbit that could make space access much cheaper (providing some of the driving economic force for such a vehicle).

To say it will never happen lacks vision. Same with supersonic transports. Regulations continue to make achieving those goals more difficult (so yes, we are thinking of your little junior in the room upstairs, Ron, at the cost of millions of dollars I might add) but that is the nature of the world in which we live. We will rise to the challenge presented to us, and it will be interesting to look back in 70 years and see what happens.


Anthony   June 19th, 2009 7:23 pm ET

Hypersonic Challenge:
As Kevin nicely points out the main obstacle to achieving reliable hypersonic flight through the use of scramjet engines is not the lack of structural materials that can withstand the frictional heating created at such high speeds. Unlike turbojets or ramjets, scramjets as the author points out are supersonic combustion engines. This means that the air that is moving through the engine is moving at supersonic speeds. These engines must spray a fuel into this stream of superfast moving air, ignite the fuel, and control the combustion of the fuel and air so that a uniform pressure wave is produced that will in turn propel the aircraft, all in the fraction of a second.

Atmospheric Pollution:
As far as pollution is concerned NOx emissions are mainly attributed to the fuel that is burned and the fuel-to-air ratio. Scramjet engines are no more or less likely to produce detrimental radicals than current commercial jet engines. Whether an aircraft flys at 30,000 ft or 150,000 feet will not make a substantial difference. Its important to note the use of hydrogen as a fuel would eliminate these concerns, however the storage and transport of this fuel is not as friendly as standard hydrocarbon jet fuels.

Sound Pollution:
This is a valid point and should not be dismissed. Many countries forbid supersonic flight over densely populated areas. I believe that the concorde had to change its initial operating routine to accomodate these concerns in NY and Paris. I believe (I'm not 100% sure) that the concorde only flew supersonic over the ocean to avoid this problem. Any future supersonic aircraft could simply follow these same operational procedures and still provide a great service.

If you want more information look up:
NASA's X-43 (shown in the article above)
Darpa's HYFly, FACET programs
Centre for Hypersonics University of Queensland


Dave   June 20th, 2009 12:56 am ET

It's amazing that people complain about a 10 hour flight to get to Europe. Get some perspective. How lucky are we to be able to travel so easily.


Vincent Hugo   June 20th, 2009 1:06 am ET

how about using one of them space ships found in Area 51, that would really get you going fast. They really exist, I married one of them.


Roberta X   June 20th, 2009 8:17 am ET

Ron, try riding a motorcycle some time and see how often drivers ignore you unless you make some noise!

If you want quiet, soundproof your house. Or should we maybe all go back to the horse'n'buggy to accommodate a few Luddites?

The possibility of commercial supersonic flight - let alone hypersonic! - returning is one of the most hopeful signs I've seen from Western Civilization in years. Now if only the commercial space flight companies would move more quickly!


Erik   June 20th, 2009 11:32 am ET

Never going to happen – too expensive. Sounds to me like you'd have to build a craft as sophisticated as the space shuttle, but made 900 percent more efficient so it could be used daily, by the general public. Good luck with that. I can think of about 10,000 other technological feats worth accomplishing before that which would improve life on this planet (even improve it just for hyper-rich people, which is all hypersonic travel would be for, assuming it was even economically feasible for them). I remember reading about hypersonic planes being just around the corner, back in the 1970s. Along with casual flights to massive civilian space stations by the year 2010. Just because something is scientifically possible doesn't make it feasible or justifiable.

The vilifying of that guy who just wants to live in the peace and quiet he purchased with his property is just shocking. You people have no understanding of what makes our system different from totalitarian dictatorships – it's exactly his right to sue, whether you agree with his case or not, because of damage to his property that sets us apart from communism or fascism.


Chaya   June 20th, 2009 11:40 am ET

The possibility of hypersonic flight is attractive for many reasons and I'm convinced that science & technology will eventually find ways to reduce fuel consumption, reduce the noise factor, protect the ozone layer & our environment. The key is to keep moving forward with those goals in mind.


Devon   June 21st, 2009 12:51 pm ET

Ron, as an avid motorcyclist I have to say......... Yes. The "loud pipes save lives" bit is total cr@p.

Why does everyone think that an advanced Scramjet is going to use jet fuel? The shuttle uses liquid hydrogen.

Super, super expensive...... hypersonic flight may never make the transition from being really useful militarily, to being commercially viable.


Jason   June 21st, 2009 5:58 pm ET

I hope next time I'm at dinner and someone's baby is crying during my meal someone from my squadron is Mach+ in an F-18 over Ron's house. I guess by his logic if there is a car accident near his house they shouldn't use lifeline because the rotor noise would upset his and his baby's ears.


Libby   June 22nd, 2009 2:53 pm ET

Anything is possible.


JD   June 23rd, 2009 7:46 am ET

Re: mesfin birke

"Human Engineering Feet"? LOL Too funny, too smelly...


Marc   June 23rd, 2009 3:03 pm ET

My guess is that the banning of the Concorde over the US had more to do with Boeing not being able to produce a competiting product. BTW IIRC Branniff International had a code-share agreement with Air France whereby Air France would fly the concorde to Dulles and then Branniff Crews would fly it from Dulles to Dallas. Does anybody recall if any other inland locations saw the Concorde?

My guess is that the same fate that befell the Concorde will doom the A380. Too much, too expensive and not enough people really willing to pay what it costs to fly....PERIOD! It is amazing how many times people claim that they are willing to pay more for more personal space yet time and again they have proved they will not. Look at TWA, American Airlines More Room Throughout Coach, Ledgends Airlines. No the fact of the matter is, cheap will always win and that is why we are stuck at mach 0.75.


James   June 23rd, 2009 3:25 pm ET

Some interesting arguments, and some less interesting ones. For those who are concerned about the sonic boom at ground level check out the Wikipedia article on sonic booms. Of course, the higher the altitude the less you will hear the boom. The reason being that the compressed air has to travel farther before reaching your ears and, as a result, much of the energy is dissipated. Also the "cone" of the sonic boom will become narrower at higher speeds (again look at the Wikipedia article for a good visuilization). The third and most interesting (to me) aspect of sonic booms is that they are relatively unaffected by the velocity of the craft. Once the craft breaks the speed of sound the boom occurs, but there are no subsequent booms for faster speeds. Going mach 2 or 3 will sound identical (in terms of number of booms) to a craft traveling at mach 1.

Now, sorting out the heat problems requires, of course, several different approaches. First higher altitudes will help decrease the temperatures generated. Second there is some very interesting research in material sciences that can create very light-weight, heat resistant products. Check out Aerogel for one such material.

To the naysayers and the skeptics,
Without attempting seemingly impossible or improbable feats of scientific advancement we would remain in the middle ages. Who in the 1600's would have said we need Hooke's work on the microscope? When I look at the table, there is nothing more to it then what I see. No contraption will help me see it any better. Pretty much all of biology is the result of an innovators pursuit of knowledge. Perhaps research into Hypersonic technologies will aid in making Space travel more feasible, or perhaps it will lead to the discovery of new fuels and engine types. Of course, it could fail completely, but how will we know if we don't try? And if you would rather play it safe, and not risk failure, then obviously the scientists's bug has not infected you.


Prakash Kadamba   June 24th, 2009 7:57 am ET

Please! Since the 50s people have claimed that someday commercial airplanes will be flying at hypersonic speeds. Unless airframe manufacturers and airlines figure out a way to make it cost-effective, this will continue to remain a science project.
The Concorde was doomed from day one due to its astronomical operating costs; it was just a prestigious mode of transportation for celebrities and heads of state – more of a status symbol than their burning need for rapid transportation. BA and AF who operated it until recently only did it for the PR it generated.


Chris   June 24th, 2009 6:16 pm ET

Replying too "how about giant submarines like cruise ships? that can go under water at faster speeds?"

Water has much more resistance than air. It may not overheat since its in water but the energy needed to travel at those speeds in water dont sound fesable.

I think if you build tunnels/pipes that go underground and through water, where you can suck the air out so theres no air resistence just gravity and you could use magnents so the vessel is not touching anything and floating in the tunnel. you could reach fast speeds without creating lots of heat. There would be no lag time, as in you dont have to reach space before you can travel at such speeds and then you have to desend back down to earth at much slower speeds.


Dpil1   June 26th, 2009 9:48 pm ET

Who cares about a small boom once you reach supersonic speeds the plane doesn't make a boom only on entering does it make a boom so why don't they fly slow until away from populated areas then go to supersonic speeds also sitting in a plane for 3 hours is a lot better than for 10 in think people will not mind paying for the tickets of supersonic flight.


David Rose   October 7th, 2009 6:34 am ET

If you live in New Zealand as I do there is definitely a functional role for supersonic flight if the range of these aircraft can be improved. First and Business Class travellers down here are an already extant market for supersonic travel.

Spending 8 or 10 hours in a plane is nothing to people in my corner of the world! Flying for 8 hours only gets you to the Australian outback or the middle of the pacific ocean. The most popular air route here – Auckland to London – is a 23 hour flight even if you could fly non-stop. it is usually a 27-30 hour torture once refuelling in added in.


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Howis   May 19th, 2012 1:35 am ET

undamentally, any strategy of baninng bad items will fail eventually, and TSA has no second line of defense. The only thing that has saved us so far is that passengers acting against government regulations have stopped several attempts. A much better strategy uses multiple lines of defense:1. Identify and catch the terrorists before they even get to the airport or other target. The FBI and CIA do some work along this line, but it could be a whole lot more effective – specific warnings about the underwear bomber weren't passed along.2. A defense in depth at the airport, with emphasis on identifying people acting oddly (as well as suspicious histories, or a suspicious lack of history) rather than searching everyone. That is, people entering the terminal must pass through several checkpoints in series, answering a few questions at each one. None of the checkpoints should take long enough for a line to form. Most important, and most difficult, the security people must be intelligent and thoroughly trained to spot odd behavior. Israeli security "profiles" but not by looking at race – many Jews look just like Arabs – or forgeable ID's and paperwork, but by looking for unusual behavior and things that don't fit together. Our problem is that you don't get such people by advertising at the unemployment agency. In Israel, it's easy to recruit good security agents; they understand that there's no job more important. Here, we tend to view security agents as somewhere below janitors, and most applicants are of corresponding quality. That's got to change, but the TSA's policies certainly aren't going to improve the public perception of their people.3. The final line of defense is on the airplane itself. Air marshal's aren't enough; the crew and at least part of the passengers must be ready to resist. Instead, we get pilots reluctantly allowed to take a class to be licensed to carry a gun on the airplane – if they pay their own way to a location that must have been chosen for inaccessibility. And then the pilots aren't allowed to wear their guns off the airplane, and have to jump through hoops to store and secure their guns that seem designed to further discourage anyone from using this option. Simply handing out a knife or club to each passenger that came through with no notable oddities in behavior or paperwork would have stopped the 9/11 hijackings cold. Beyond that: We trust pilots with a much bigger weapon, so the only requirement for wearing a sidearm should be a decent score from a shooting range. I'd allow anyone with a current CCW license to carry in the airport and on the airplane, provided only that a database check confirms their ID and license, and that they load with frangible bullets. I'd allow – and if practical require – all law enforcement officers who are in good standing to wear their sidearm when travelling. And any military member who is considered responsible by his commander should be issued a weapon whenever traveling on orders or on leave (with commanders who regard very few of their troops as sufficiently responsible hauled in to answer why they can't train them better).


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