Imagine flying from LA to NY in under an hour. Testing took place this week on a new technology that could make super-quick flights a reality. On Tuesday August 14, 2012, off the coast of California, the US Air Force tested its hypersonic aircraft X-51A Waverider.
Unfortunately, the US Air Force said Wednesday that it broke apart over the Pacific Ocean just 31 seconds into its flight due to a faulty control fin.
Measuring 25 feet in length and only a few inches in diameter, the Waverider is hardly a passenger jet. It’s barely an aircraft. But it’s not the size that matters (yet), it’s the technology behind it — technology which could one day fly people across the world in minutes rather than hours.
Hypersonic refers to travel speeds over Mach 5 (3,800 miles per hour). The Pentagon says that other countries are becoming more aware of US stealth technology, making it an increasingly less effective tool. That’s why the military is now focusing their attention on the new hypersonic aircraft technology in hopes of perfecting a newer, faster version of the stealth.
If hypersonic technology can be applied to commercial travel, it would mean that flights would be so quick that flight attendants would barely have enough time to break out the drink cart! It also means the end of jet-lag — no more grogginess after a transcontinental flight.
How does hypersonic technology work?
Hypersonic aircraft engines would breath oxygen just like today’s jet engines. The difference, though, is that the technology would allow the engines to reach speeds over five times faster than current jets. The only way to reach those speeds today would be to use rocket power.
According to Dora Musielak, an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Texas Arlington, “You would have to have bulky fuel tanks, nozzles and plumbing, and that makes rocket power more heavy and more expensive.” Musielak, who researches high-speed propulsion, went on to say, “Hypersonic technology only requires the aircraft to stay in the atmosphere and is much lighter and efficient.”
The hypersonic aircraft is designed to capture the shock waves it generates when exceeding the speed of sound. That shock absorption adds lift to the airframe as it cuts through the atmosphere, which leads to more efficient engine performance and aerodynamics. This was the third of four military-built X-51A hypersonic aircraft. One actually managed to fly for more than three minutes during a 2010 test flight.
According to the Air Force, we could see this technology roll out as early as 2016 — in the form of a working weapon flying with hypersonic technology, not in the form of a passenger jet. The military is all over the new technology, but Musielak believes commercial aviation should focus first on mastering supersonic air transport before taking on hypersonic flight.
The entire concept of hypersonic flight begs the question, are we even capable of surviving those kinds of speeds? Are there physical limits on how much force the human body can withstand?
According to Musielak, speed is a factor … when you’re traveling at about Mach 20, that is. “Staying at Mach 5 or 6, you can have an aircraft that would give passengers a smoother ride,” she said, noting that things can get a bit turbulent at Mach 20, “…higher speeds would produce higher forces on the body and a more jittery ride like astronauts face while launching into space.”
To give you an idea of how quickly you could get from one destination to the next, a flight from Los Angeles to New York would take about 46 minutes at Mach 6. What do you think? Are you ready for rocket-like hypersonic travel?