Will we be flying hypersonic jets one day?
August 15th, 2012
12:05 AM ET

Will we be flying hypersonic jets one day?

By Mike Mount

Who needs business class when your overseas flight will last less than an hour? Some of the first tests of such a technology happened Tuesday off the California coast as the Air Force tested its hypersonic X-51A Waverider vehicle.

At just 25 feet long and only a few inches in diameter, the Waverider is a far cry from an aircraft that can carry people anywhere. But the technology one day could send people or troops across the world in just minutes.

Hypersonic travel, meaning speeds of Mach 5 (3,800 miles per hour) and above, has been a focus of the military as it looks to perfect a technology that can become the new stealth. The Pentagon says that countries are becoming wiser to US stealth technology and it is increasingly becoming a less effective tool.

Hypersonic flight does away with stealth because its speeds allow for greater flexibility and control for missions that are not possible with current jet technology.

But in the commercial world, it can mean flights are so quick a flight attendant hardly would have time to serve drinks and a meal, and there would be no more groggy feeling after those transcontinental flights.

The technology is significant because a hypersonic aircraft breaths oxygen, like a regular jet engine, but reaches speeds five times that of commercial aircraft. To get similar results, the only other option is rocket power.

"You would have to have bulky fuel tanks, nozzles and plumbing and that makes rocket power more heavy and more expensive," says Dora Musielak, an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Musielak's research focuses on high-speed propulsion.

"Hypersonic technology only requires the aircraft to stay in the atmosphere and is much lighter and efficient," she says.

As it cuts through the atmosphere, the design of the craft captures the shock waves it creates as it goes beyond the speed of sound, adding lift to the airframe.

"All of that adds to better engine performance and better aerodynamics, making it a more aerodynamically efficient aircraft," says Mark Lewis, the former chief scientist for the Air Force.

How far away are we to seeing this technology as a reality? It's hard to say, according to analysts. But the Air Force says that by 2016, it would like to have a working weapon flying with hypersonic technology.

"The vehicles need to be predictable, more cost effective and there still is a need to design on-board flight control systems, so it is several years away," Lewis says.

But while the military is in a rush to seize this technology, Musielak says commercial aviation should focus on mastering supersonic air transport first.

"First we need to travel at supersonic speeds.I think we need to first develop the technology to go beyond the Concord, and we still need a step between what we have and hypersonics," Musielak says, referencing the only supersonic commercial aircraft that entered service.

That said, can humans even withstand hypersonic travel? With the break-neck speeds and airframe temperatures reaching highs in the thousands of degrees, are there limits?

It turns out speed is a factor, but only when you are traveling at Mach 20, then it becomes a bit bumpy.

"Staying at Mach 5 or 6, you can have an aircraft that would give passengers a smoother ride," according to Musielak.

"But higher speeds would produce higher forces on the body and a more jittery ride like astronauts face while launching into space," she said.

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Filed under: Air Force • Military • Technology
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  27. B

    Utilizing the proposed benefits of this technology and getting somewhere on the planet in two hours is wasted due to lack of supporting infrastructures to accommodate it.

    Dedicated airports, and special fuel farms, dedicated ATC facilities, special routes to accommodate high Mach paths,high operating costs, all need to be developed at the same time or it is not practical. That is mainly what killed SST,HSCT concepts.

    Boeing looked at them for several decades and could not overcome problems of the sonic boom,special fuels,stratospheric pollution,operating cost,infrastructure requirements and on and on. They could make an airplane,but all of the rest have to be practical and they were not.

    Business SSTs might happen in a more limited market that is willing to accomidate the huge operating costs, but hypersonic flight is a whole new special operating requirement.

    August 23, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Reply
  28. saeed

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    August 16, 2012 at 7:01 am | Reply
  29. Joey eMediaDirector

    It's 2012 – almost 2015, I remember when that was sooo far away as a kid. Remember Back to the Future had flying cars in 2015!

    So 3 more years? lol. no flying cars.

    I won't even be able to enjoy any of this technology in my time unless there is a money level marketing tax pyramid involved in which I will have to be on top in order for my grandchildren to enjoy these technologies.

    August 16, 2012 at 2:39 am | Reply
  30. TheGreatOne

    Has anyone NOT seen the fact that the military wants to turn this into a weapon? It's just like Ian Mckellen's character said in X-3. "You see? They have turned it into a weapon first!"

    It's fine the military and NASA have developed this. It's fine they seem to have made a breakthrough that might help millions of people in the future. In fact, it's even okay if they have spent hard-earned tax payers' money because it's for something good.

    But what is NOT fine is the fact that they want to weaponize this because "Other Countries" are becoming wiser to US stealth technology and it is increasingly becoming a less effective tool.

    August 16, 2012 at 12:38 am | Reply
  31. guest

    Cool but if we can master orbital flying MACH 6 will be nothing compared with the ability to reach the other side of the planet in only 15 minuets.

    August 15, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Reply
    • Joseph Tessaro

      I hate to break it to you, but this is one of the applications they are speaking of with this technology.

      August 16, 2012 at 12:09 am | Reply
  32. Dave mcgaraughty

    It will be 50 years before we all fly at mach 6.

    August 15, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Reply
    • Joseph Tessaro

      I doubt it will be 50 years. Look at the last 50 years with what we have done with autos, boats, subs, planes, and aerospace. Although it is years away, I would bet within 20 years we are traveling in planes reaching Mach 6. The technology is here, it just needs to be harnessed and perfected.

      August 15, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Reply
  33. thatbrutha

    So, we wasted how many billions? Why not throw a few millions on building infrastructure and and some other neat stuff that will make our country more of an investment to foreign dollars..

    August 15, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Reply
    • Joseph Tessaro

      As always, there will be someone to complain about the money spent on projects like this because the money should be spent on so many other things that could benefit the millions of people living in poverty, not only within our borders but in the entire world. The money has been budgeted, the government will continue to fund projects like this that can, and will...eventually...have a positive impact on travel, and military applications. Technology makes travel better in the long run. We used to get around by horse and buggy...then times changed. Trains, planes, and automobiles happened. If you would prefer traveling by horse and buggy from Washington to the East Coast, then hop on a ship to get to England and take 3 months to do so, more power to you...In 20 years, I would rather drive my car 15 minutes to the airport, hop on a hypersonic plane and get there within an hour. I could only imagine the money saved not only by myself from not having to feed my horses and time I lost from work making the journey would pale in comparison to the money I spend on a plane ticket to get there in an hour. Look past the billions being spent now, and look at the billions saved in the future.

      August 15, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Reply
      • Mark

        Thanks Joseph, finally a reply by someone with some sense!!

        August 16, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  34. PanzerJager

    So this is how they plan to get all the illegals out of the country in under four years lol

    August 15, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Reply
  35. str8whtguy

    Enormous cost aside, the cool factor is pretty high if they actually get it to work.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Reply
  36. ABigGuyWithAGun

    Perhapse it wasnt meant to be.

    I see no reason this should exists if it doesnt have a nuclear warhead attached to it

    August 15, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      I am sure you and Adolf Hitler have much in common, especially in regards to not "seeing" things. Let's just hope the Chinese don't steal the technology like they normally do.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Reply
      • Joseph Tessaro

        I think Hitler could spell, but that is just an edgeyoucated guess on my behalf.

        August 16, 2012 at 12:07 am |
    • Joseph Tessaro

      Why? Nuclear warheads can travel from point A to point B without the use of a plane...technology is a great thing...look, you can use your computer to respond to this article rather than using a pen/pencil and a piece of paper. We are long past the days of "Dear Abby".

      August 15, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Reply
  37. mhklein

    Flying at mach 20? Interesting, because low earth orbit is achieved at mach 22 or 23. If you could build an airplane that flew at mach 20, you could do away with big rocket boosters.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Reply
  38. Flang23

    Stupid aliens keep shooting our good stuff down.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Reply
  39. GonzoinHouston

    The two best investments a society can make are pure research and public education. Unfortunately, neither shows a direct short-term return on the investment.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Reply
    • Joseph Tessaro

      Very well said. I could not agree with you more. Unfortunately a lot of people only see the short term...like the billions spent now to save billions in the future. This goes with any industry, or any application as to the way we live our lives today.

      August 16, 2012 at 12:03 am | Reply
  40. David

    To each of you making negative comments about this story and about the "curiosity" mars rover: You think that NASA and the Air Force are wasting your tax dollars? You are welcome to have your opinion. But please stop using your iPhones, GPS, laptop computers, microwaves, Hybrid Cars, etc. because you do not deserve to use the technology developed by "wasted tax dollars". I know your iPhones were built by the miracle workers over at Apple but many of the great things an iPhone can do were born while the government was "wasting your tax dollars" The technology that was created by simply building the Mars rover will someday make our lives better. The private sector doesn't pull all these great ideas out of their ass.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Reply
    • bluegillonthefly

      I've got to call you on that, David. Too much bull.

      Microwave oven? Based on radar technology, which was developed by the DoD as a weapon. Predates NASA.

      Computers: developed during the 1940s, initially for mlitary use. Things in a laptop that were developed by NASA: none

      GPS: initially developed by, and used exclusively by, the military. GPS sats are launched by the air force. No NASA here, folks.

      Hybrid cars? Pretty standard technology, adapted from the computer industry more than from anywhere else. Concept is also smilar to how a diesel-electric locomotive works, except for the batteries.

      That said, it isn't in research where the government is mostly wasting our money, but wasted our money surely is.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Reply
      • sense76

        So what is your point bluegillonthfly? Military is not funded by the government? Military Research or Civilian Research the innovations get passed on to private sector. You think the money spent on NASA is not as useful as the money spent on Military? How were the GPS satellites, Spy Satellites etc launched? NASA and Military work together in many areas. Just because it is money spent on a civilian department doesn't make it any less worthy. Sounds like the typical ideology of a political party today! What did the 800 billion dollars spent on Iraq give us?

        August 16, 2012 at 1:54 am |
  41. Dapper Daniel

    The diameter of that looks to be about 24 inches or so, to me. In what world is that referred to as "a few inches"? Good Lord! There are some good jokes to be made.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  42. Partyman JG

    Thanks people. I bet this cost a fortune to be up in the air for 16 seconds. (See August 15 CNN headlines) Could have given new (fuel-efficient) cars to everyone in the state of Arizona for freee probably fo the cost of this lovely science field trip.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  43. Concorde Lover

    BRING BACK THE CONCORDE!!!

    August 15, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  44. anthony

    hm, sounds like a spin job. hypersonic commercial air travel when in fact the air force is testing and entering another missile age. just great when we are mired in public debt and education system is an embarassment.

    August 15, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
    • tom

      I am wondering why this is out in the open? Wouldn't you all expect this to be a "black" program?

      August 15, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  45. Tim

    I wonder who the first lucky bunch will be to blast into a mountain at mach 6.

    August 15, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  46. William

    I would only pay $13 and they had better throw in a full can of soda.

    August 15, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  47. adamdocherty

    I would suggest that we look to enhancing local transit infrastructure before shooting for commercial hypersonic travel. Shaving considerable time off mass public transit at a local and national level would give far more benefit in regards to overall productivity and well being.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
    • mike

      AMEN brother.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply
    • catsnake

      Very true but it's cool to think about.

      August 15, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Reply
    • highball

      Boy do I ever agree with that. How about some intercity rail at maybe 150 MPH, and somewhere besides the east coast? Downtown Chicago to downtown St. Louis in 1.5 hours, or Phoenix to LA in a little over 2 hours. They don't have to go 300 MPH. They just need to be time effective compared to driving. But catsnake is right about one thing: Mach 6 is cool to think about.

      August 15, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  48. Thomas

    The cogent question is: How much would potential customers be willing to pay?

    August 15, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Reply

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