Tag: supersonic

New Supersonic Travel Options Emerge On Earth And Mars

Supersonic flight is suddenly a hot topic again, with Aerion Supersonic and Spire Global jointly announcing new technology to reduce high-altitude contrails on a new supersonic commercial aircraft.

Plane contrails are a known contributor to global warming and Spire plans to use its network of satellites to make the best predictions of flight paths to reduce contrail formation. The partnership will “increase fuel conservation, improve operational efficiencies, and reduce the environmental footprint” of supersonic technology overall, said Peter Platzer, CEO of Spire Global, in a statement.

The news comes amid a slew of supersonic aircraft announcements in the last few weeks, including startup Hermeus raising $16 million in a Series A fundraiser, and Boom Supersonic announcing a new collaboration with Collins Aerospace for its own supersonic jet. Virgin Galactic also has a supersonic flying vehicle under consideration.

It’s exciting to think of fleets of supersonic jets once again crossing Earth’s sky as the Concorde once did, but what is the implication for travel on other planets?

We already have plans to go supersonic on Mars in the coming months. NASA’s Perseverance rover will need to slow down considerably as it enters the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 mph (5.4 kilometers per second) to safely touch down on the surface a few minutes later. (Watch for that landing in February 2021.)

So NASA and its partners made a parachute that is up for the task. In 2018, the parachute testing on Earth broke a world record by inflating faster than any other in history: the parachute went from a solid cylinder to full inflation in only four-tenths of a second. “Mars 2020 will be carrying the heaviest payload yet to the surface of Mars, and like all our prior Mars missions, we only have one parachute and it has to work,” said John McNamee, project manager of Mars 2020 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement at the time.

So let’s break down the benefits. On Earth, supersonic travel by jet will allow passengers to fly between destinations in perhaps two hours or so, faster than today’s typical ocean crossing of roughly six hours over the Atlantic. And when we’re ready to bring humans to Mars, supersonic parachutes will allow us to bring big cargo loads to the Red Planet — like people, equipment and vehicles.

But could we be cruising the Red Planet in supersonic speed jet in a century or two? Before we can imagine that, we need to make sure we can fly smaller vehicles. And guess what, Perseverance does have a flight test planned.

Assuming Perseverance makes it to the surface, riding on its belly will be a little helicopter known as Ingenuity. NASA wants Ingenuity to be the first controlled flying vehicle on Mars. No, it won’t be a supersonic vehicle

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New jets promise to revive supersonic travel

a large air plane on display: Boom's XB-1 demonstrator will test technology for its planned Overture supersonic commercial airliner

© Boom Supersonic
Boom’s XB-1 demonstrator will test technology for its planned Overture supersonic commercial airliner

“People have always wanted to travel fast, ever since the first person galloped across the plains on horseback,” says Mike Bannister.

And he should know. Mr Bannister flew Concorde with British Airways for 22 years. As the airline’s senior Concorde captain he piloted the final commercial flight over London in October 2003 and subsequently the very last flight delivering a Concorde to a Bristol museum.

Nearly two decades later the world is edging closer to again having passenger jets that can fly faster than the speed of sound.

This month, Boom Supersonic rolled out its XB-1 supersonic test plane. It’s the first civilian supersonic aircraft since the Soviet Union’s Tupolev TU-144 in 1968.

The skinny, sharply-pointed machine will allow Boom to confirm aspects of the design of its proposed Overture, a much more elegant delta-winged project that echoes Concorde.

Overture is intended to carry between 65 and 88 passengers across oceanic routes, sparing human populations the supersonic boom generated by its Mach 2.2 speed.

Nasa has a more outlandish test aircraft in the wings, the spindly X-59. This will fly in 2022, chasing the prize of sustained supersonic flight overland. This means finding ways to eliminate, or at least mitigate, the supersonic boom.

Then there’s Aerion, claiming its AS2 design will offer civil supersonic flight by the end of the decade. But with just 8-10 passengers the AS2 is aimed at an entirely new market, that for supersonic business travel.

a man standing in front of a car: Mike Bannister flew the final Concorde flight for British Airways

© Mike Bannister
Mike Bannister flew the final Concorde flight for British Airways

Mr Bannister says it’s important to understand that these jets are not rivals, but new entrants in completely different sectors of commercial flight.

“With AS2, Aerion are hoping to fly overland at Mach 1.4, generating a low supersonic boom. Boom wants to go over the ocean at Mach 2.2 and in my opinion that’s the stronger market,” he says.

One engineering problem that all of these aircraft have to overcome is how air is ingested by the engines at high speed.

Gulping in air at supersonic speeds creates problems for all aircraft engines. The intakes are devised so as to break up that airflow and reduce it to a velocity the engine can cope with.

It’s a highly sensitive area, which even caused an Anglo-French rift at the time of Concorde’s retirement. Air France retired its fleet, but British Airways was keen to keep the aircraft flying.

“One reason Airbus, which had assumed authority over Concorde’s design, wouldn’t give us the full design authority to keep it flying was because the intake design was still secret,” says Mr Bannister.

a large passenger jet flying over a body of water: The AS2 is aimed at the business travel market

© Aerion
The AS2 is aimed at the business travel market

The aerospace industry is in a vicious downturn at the moment, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Airlines have delayed or cancelled orders in response to a slump in passenger numbers.

So will there be demand for supersonic jets?

“The big question

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