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Hypersonic planes blast off into the future

By Andrew Duval and Ella Polak Dec. 14, 2023

Catherine Nguyen Art

A flight from New York to Tokyo in just one hour seems impossible—reminiscent of a scenario taken straight out of the latest science fiction novel. This fantastical scene is not a vision of the far-off future, but rather a projection for a hypersonic plane currently in development that will fly at 6,900 mph. As companies around the world rapidly advance hypersonic technology, a new era of transportation is taking flight.

Hypersonic flight goes a step further than supersonic flight, which is defined by speeds between Mach 1—the speed of sound—and Mach 5. Aircraft that surpass Mach 5, reaching hypersonic speed, travel at over one mile per second and can circumnavigate the globe in just a few hours. During the Cold War, extreme flight technology reached its peak; just 10 years after the V-2 was developed, the record for the fastest manned aircraft was claimed by the X-15, which flew at Mach 6.7 and was operated by many future astronauts, including Neil Armstrong. However, military investment in hypersonic technology petered out in the later years of the Cold War, as stealth capabilities were emphasized over the superior speed and altitude that hypersonic flight offers. Government funding was also redirected to the Space Race; a planned Mach 18 space plane, the X-20 Dyna-Soar, was scrapped in exchange for NASA’s Gemini program, which trained astronauts for the first moon landing. Currently, companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing are leading the industry, with the former creating multiple hypersonic missile systems for the U.S. Navy and the latter working on the X-51 Waverider, an unmanned hypersonic aircraft. In 2022, hypersonic missiles were first used on the battlefield by Russia to devastate Ukrainian defenses in the Russia-Ukraine war.


While nearly all existing hypersonic technology is devoted to military objectives, a burgeoning civilian market for high-speed transportation is rapidly growing. The commercial hypersonic flight industry has its roots in the Concorde, a supersonic jet that flew regular routes in the second half of the 20th century. The Concorde, which traveled at Mach 2 and could fly from London to New York in three and a half hours, was an engineering marvel for its time. However, a fatal crash in 2000 forced airlines to make expensive safety modifications to the planes which, along with inhibiting fuel costs, made the Concorde unprofitable and ended the use of the planes in 2003.

The mantle of high-speed flight has been taken up by numerous startups since the collapse of the Concorde. Venus Aerospace raised nearly $40 million to develop a business jet capable of traveling at Mach 9, launching it high enough to see the blackness of space and fast enough to travel halfway around the globe in an hour. The U.S. Air Force awarded $60 million in funding to Hermeus, a company that aims to construct a Mach 5.5 commercial jet and other autonomous aircraft. Destinus, a European startup, has successfully tested two prototypes for a Mach 5 plane that can travel from Frankfurt to Dubai in 90 minutes, and the Chinese company Space Transportation is planning a crewed test flight of its supersonic business jet in 2025.

“As this technology is developed, there is a risk that high-speed travel will only be accessible to the rich since companies may charge high prices in order to make their products economically viable,” Senior Matthew Phan said.

The future of the hypersonic transportation industry depends on new technology that can surpass the limitations of the Concorde. Although the transition from Mach 4.99 to Mach 5.01—supersonic to hypersonic—does not cause a significant change in the physics relating to an object’s flight, as aircrafts fly at faster speeds and higher altitudes, engineers must consider numerous factors that are usually negligible in subsonic or supersonic flight. Most supersonic aircraft use ramjets to propel themselves at speeds between Mach 2 and Mach 4. Ramjets work by taking in air from the front of the aircraft, compressing it and heating it to cause a combustion reaction that propels the aircraft forward. However, ramjets cannot effectively be used at hypersonic speeds because when they compress the air, the molecules in the air have their speed reduced to below Mach 1 before they are combusted. As an alternative, engineers plan to utilize scramjets, which are modified ramjet engines that do not reduce the speed of the air during compression. At hypersonic speeds, the airflow over the aircraft creates so much friction that it can dramatically heat the aircraft, causing structural vibration, which would reduce the structural integrity of the vehicle. In addition, hypersonic aircraft often fly at higher altitudes, where the air is less dense. Therefore, the design of hypersonic vehicles must account for various aerodynamic effects that occur in lower-density air. Traveling faster than the speed of sound causes shock waves. When the speed increases to hypersonic levels, these shock waves occur extremely close to the surface of the aircraft, creating more drag and variables to be accounted for in flight.

Many companies, such as Venus Aerospace, are finding innovative ways to overcome these problems and become profitable. Venus Aerospace’s Mach 9 Stargazer will be fitted with a rotating-detonation engine, which increases combustion efficiency by 25% and reduces fuel costs, according to the company’s co-founder. Destinus plans to use hydrogen as an energy source, and Airbus is constructing a hydrogen jet engine that will be tested in 2026. Hydrogen is much lighter than other fuels and more energy-efficient, and hydrogen prices are projected to drop in the coming decades.

As travel times between distant cities are massively reduced, hypersonic travel has the potential to transform global interactions. New markets will open up due to potentially increasing tourism and cross-cultural exchange will likely increase as same-day travel across the world becomes commonplace. International investment could also increase as business between different countries becomes more efficient.

“Although hydrogen fuel and hypersonic flight are still maturing, their ability to shape our society and boost the economy outweighs their risks. Humanity as a whole should always try to push the limits of technology and try to optimize everything,” Sophomore Tristan Mank said.

Still, commercial hypersonic travel faces a number of significant obstacles before it becomes a part of daily life. Most development deadlines are at least a decade away and the substantial initial investment required to create hypersonic technology has already caused some companies, such as Aerion, to collapse. Hypersonic aircraft have the potential to be both incredibly destructive and constructive to society.

 

About the Contributors

Andrew Duval

page editor


Andrew Duval is a sophomore at Leland High School and is the Sports and Fun Page Editor for The Charger Account. He loves listening to music and playing with his yellow lab Winston.



Ella Polak

page editor


Ella Polak is a junior at Leland High School and is the Feature World and Lifestyle Page Editor for The Charger Account. She enjoys watching TV, listening to music, and hanging out with friends.



Catherine Nguyen

staff writer

artist


Both a writer and an artist for The Charger Account, Catherine Nguyen is a freshman who likes drawing, baking, and taekwondo!

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