The problem with traveling to Europe or, for that matter, Asia and the South Pacific, is that the flights take so long. Flying from New York to London, for instance, generally takes 7 or 8 hours.
In its heyday, the supersonic Concorde aircraft was capable of making that flight in around 3.5 hours. Indeed, thanks to meticulous planning, a Concorde operated by British Airways famously set a world record when it flew from John F. Kennedy airport in New York City to London’s Heathrow airport in just 2 hours, 52 minutes, and 59 seconds on February 7, 1996.
The downside of those aircraft was that the cost of jet fuel exceeded the profit made from flights, making the Concorde unprofitable to operate.
Now, however, research is being conducted by NASA to determine whether the commercial market can once again support supersonic air travel.
Large modern commercial aircraft typically cruise at around 600 miles per hour, which is about 80 percent of the speed of sound. Instead, scientists at NASA’s Glenn Research Center have been studying whether or not there’s a business case for developing supersonic passenger aircraft capable of flying between what’s known as Mach 2 and Mach 4 (1,535–3,045 miles per hour at sea level).
NASA’s researchers have concluded that there is potential for supersonic passenger markets along about 50 established routes, according to the agency. Importantly, those routes are for transoceanic travel, including high-volume routes across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, because the U.S. and many other nations prohibit supersonic flights over land.
Research Takes Flight
What’s officially known as NASA’s “Advanced Air Vehicles Program,” or AAVP, now moves into its next phase.
This phase includes issuing a 12-month contract to two companies so they can develop concept designs and technology roadmaps. These roadmaps will “explore air travel possibilities, outline risks and challenges, and identify needed technologies to make Mach 2-plus travel a reality,” NASA explains.
Boeing is leading the first team. Its partners are Exosonic, GE Aerospace, Georgia Tech Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory, Rolls-Royce North American Technologies, and others.
Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems will lead the second team. Its partners are Blue Ridge Research and Consulting, Boom Supersonic, and Rolls-Royce North American Technologies.
Each team will develop roadmap elements that include airframe, power, propulsion, thermal management, and composite materials that can withstand heat generated by high supersonic speeds. They will also create non-proprietary designs for concept vehicles.
“The design concepts and technology roadmaps are really important to have in our hands when the companies are finished,” said Mary Jo Long-Davis, manager of NASA’s Hypersonic Technology Project. “We are also collectively conscious of the need to account for safety, efficiency, economic, and societal considerations. It’s important to innovate responsibly so we return benefits to travelers and do no harm to the environment.”
Other Supersonic Aircraft Efforts
NASA, as you may imagine, has another ongoing supersonic aircraft mission underway as well.
Its Quesst mission is tasked with designing and building NASA’s X-59 research aircraft, which is a quiet supersonic aircraft that uses technology to reduce the sound of the aircraft’s sonic boom so only a “gentle thump” is heard by people on the ground, NASA explains.
The mission is also tasked with flying the X-59 aircraft over several U.S. communities so researchers can gather data about the sound generated during the supersonic flights. That data will then be given to U.S. and international regulators to, perhaps, change overland commercial supersonic flight rules.
“We conducted concept studies [similar to the new ones] over a decade ago at Mach 1.6–1.8, and those resulting roadmaps helped guide NASA research efforts since, including those leading to the X-59,” said Lori Ozoroski, project manager for NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology Project. “These new studies will both refresh those looks at technology roadmaps and identify additional research needs for a broader high-speed range.”
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