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