Despite the cost of tickets and the fatal crash that ended its fast reign over the skies, supersonic commercial jets like the Concorde still have many fans. Unfortunately, their calls for a return are literally and figuratively drowned out by that loud and annoying sonic boom that accompanies these aircrafts as they penetrate the sound barrier again and again in their flights, especially around airports. That may change soon with the development of no-boom supersonic planes.
According to a new study conducted by Samuel Hammond, a research fellow at the Mercatus Centre at George Mason University in Virginia, and reported on in Wired, the shape of things to come in quiet supersonic travel is long and thin. The sonic boom is a big shockwave created by the union of little shockwaves which form as a craft reaches the speed of sound (Mach 1 – 1,235 km/h – 767 mph) and air moves across the nose, wings and other parts before joining to raise, lower and raise again the atmospheric pressure – building the boom that shakes people, places and things on the ground.
The key to lowering the boom on the boom is to reduce the number of little shockwaves and the best way to do that is by lengthening the plane and shrinking the diameter of its fuselage. According to the study, Lockheed is working on this with its Quiet Supersonic Technology X-plane which will have canard fins (horizontal stabilizers at the front to push the air down and lift the nose), a stabilator (a fully movable aircraft stabilizer or all-moving tail) and a T-tail, all designed to work together to minimize the plane’s impact with the atmosphere. The plane will also subtract sound by subtracting the cockpit canopy (window) and replacing it with an electronic vision system.
This sounds (and looks) SO cool, but will it work? Lockheed has begun wind tunnel tests on a model of the X-plane at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and predicts a full-sized plane flying at Mach 1.4 (924 mph) at 55,000 feet would create a “mild thump barely heard on the ground.” “Mild thump” and “barely heard” are relative terms and someone is sure to complain anyway, but it’s got to be better than the current bomb-like booms that have rattled the public ever since the creation of supersonic planes, which coincided with the Cold War and the never-ending fears of air attacks and bombs.
Lockheed is planning to have a prototype ready by 2023 but competition may drive engineers to work faster. Spike Aerospace is working on the Spike S-512 which will have no windows whatsoever and instead give passengers an electronic panoramic display of the outside passing by. Aerion Corporation already has orders for its Aerion AS2 which will uses dynamic curves along the fuselage to reduce shockwaves.
All of these companies are pushing projections like traveling from Tokyo to LA in just five hours and London to Mumbai in four. Unfortunately, the size of the planes is small (under 20 passengers) and the costs are still high, so future supersonic travel will – at least initially – be the realm of the wealthy and the military. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will get a “mild thump barely heard on the ground.”
Is that a fair trade for technology that won’t be available or affordable to the general public for decades? That’s the never-ending question asked of science and progress.