Could the planes of the future fly at hypersonic speeds?

Concorde, of course, was merely supersonic. Here it is back in 1975. Image: STF/Getty.

When Concorde entered service 40 years ago, it more than doubled the speed of air travel at a stroke. Following Concorde’s retirement, airliners today fly once more at subsonic speeds, but engineers worldwide are looking to a future in which high-speed flight is an everyday occurrence. Except they want to go one better: not at supersonic, but hypersonic speeds.

Aerospace giant Airbus was last year awarded a patent that details how a future hypersonic aircraft, with delta wings reminiscent of Concorde, could travel at Mach 4.5 – fast enough to carry passengers between Paris and Tokyo in just three hours.

But inevitably, technology that has reached the commercial realm will already have been investigated by the military. The US, Russia and China have all carried out test flights of hypersonic vehicles – those which travel at around five times the speed of sound – with varying degrees of success. Each also has plans for weapons systems that could be developed from them.

Because while these are often referred to as “fighter jets”, in truth the machines are more similar to missiles. Without pilots, they sit atop rockets which boost them to high supersonic speeds (Mach 4 and above), at which point they start up their own engines (if equipped) and accelerate to even faster cruise speeds. But they'd don't maintain them for long, as they usually run out of fuel quickly, and most of their flight time is spent in a glide, albeit an extremely fast one.

Current missiles have operated in this fashion for decades. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and some shorter-range versions use the same sort of flight path, with the missile formed of multiple rocket stages to provide enough power to arc high into the atmosphere, only flying faster and higher. The now retired US AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missile had a top speed of Mach 5. What makes the current generation of hypersonic aircraft designs different is their capability to manoeuvre, making them harder to intercept.

An X-43 rocket plane dropped from a B-52, seconds before igniting its scramjet engines and reaching a world record-holding 10,000km/h (Mach 9.8). Image: NASA.

Why bother? There are two main reasons for the fresh interest shown by the military in hypersonic aircraft. The first is that a very fast, highly manoeuvrable weapon is not easy to counter: it can be difficult to detect and its speed means that there is little time for defences to react, much less to actually take any action to stop it.

This makes it a threat to supposedly heavily defended targets – and most discussion of the Chinese hypersonic craft, dubbed Wu-14, and the Russian equivalent, the Yu-71, mention penetrating US missile defence systems as a primary aim.

The second relates to a requirement that has become more urgent in recent years, namely to shorten response time and to attack mobile targets. While drones, satellites and the like can locate them easily enough, highly mobile enemy units – anything from terrorist groups to Scud missile launchers – will not hang around waiting for the inevitable airstrike to be called in. A very fast weapons platform with the ability to manoeuvre means that once found, a target will have little time and less opportunity to escape.

The need for speed

Of course, to create a workable hypersonic vehicle, engineers have to overcome, or at least cope with, the severe environment encountered by something moving that fast. The main problem (from which most if not all the others stem) is heat – heat from air friction and from the shock waves generated by moving faster than the speed of sound.

The temperatures a hypersonic vehicle encounters are so high that conventional materials can’t withstand them and maintain their strength. There are materials that can insulate a structure from the heat, but they tend not to be very strong in themselves, and so any breach of insulation can quickly lead to catastrophic failure – as demonstrated by the tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, and also of some current test vehicles. Research into new heat-resistant materials and suitable manufacturing techniques is therefore a priority.

High air temperatures also reduce the thrust of an air-breathing jet engine, so new propulsion concepts are also needed – relying on rocket engines tends to lead to overly large and heavy aircraft. Among the companies leading the way on propulsion technology is British company Reaction Engines, which is testing the revolutionary Sabre variable-cycle engine.

Travelling at very high speeds will also require advanced sensors and controls. New materials will be needed again, as conventional radomes and antennae would never withstand the heat. Conformal antennae – where the craft’s fuselage skin is used as the transmitter and receiver – are a possibility, though this is not guaranteed to work. Depending on just how fast the vehicle is designed to travel, ionisation of the air around it could interfere with radio-frequency sensors and communications.

Whether it’s possible to create a crewed or passenger hypersonic aircraft is still up for debate. But producing any sort of hypersonic vehicle is a long-term project that will take a lot of time and effort – and a whole lot of money. Patents mark the ground as to where some may follow. But who out there has the will, the persistence and the funds to do so?The Conversation

Phillip Atcliffe is senior lecturer in aeronautical engineering at the University of Salford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.

You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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