Back in August NASA planned to solicit proposals for future air and space research. Now it’s amended plans for that program, called Aeronuatics 2010, with scope for further proposals on hypersonic travel. Why, and what the heck is that?
Those earlier moves by NASA’s Chief Technologist to fund research into “innovative, fast and new” air and space technologies generated a lot of interest. It gave us insight into how NASA thinks space and air travel may evolve in the future, and hinted at a closer integration with commercial space industries. Now we know they are bullish on hypersonic travel, too–which is potentially good news for the airline industry.
If you remember the late, lamented Concorde, you’ll remember it flew at Mach 2–twice the speed of sound–which was fast enough for it to beat the sunset as it flew toward the U.S. from London and Paris. The impressive SR71 Blackbird spy plane flew at just over Mach 3–three times the speed of sound–fast enough to let it flit into and out of conflict zones or restricted airspace all over the globe without being caught.
Hypersonic aircraft would fly much faster than this: At above Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. That’s fast enough for a hypersonic vehicle to get you from New York to Sydney in about two and a half hours.
The thought of hypersonic transport planes is novel enough–though their practicality as passenger vehicles may never quite be realized. But NASA’s proposal calls for studies into “air-breathing access to space” and “entry, descent and landing of high-mass vehicles in planetary atmospheres.”
That means NASA has an eye on super-fast scramjet spacecraft that could fly like conventional aircraft up through the atmosphere into space, without any of the fuss of rockets (think of the Pan-Am spaceliner from 2001). We know NASA is thinking about a super Space Shuttle-like spaceship that could theoretically be flown to Mars and then descend through the atmosphere to land on the surface. Both are systems that require expertise in hypersonic aerodynamics. Both come straight out of sci-fi novels. And both, were they to be realized, would have an enormous impact on civilian industries–like most space technology.