One good morning you get up, leave your house in Madrid, go to Barajas airport and get on a plane with a coffee and the newspaper under your arm. The ship takes off and before you have reached the Sports section you are already walking the runway at JF Kennedy in New York. It sounds like science fiction. And it is, although perhaps not for a long time. In China there is already a company, Space Transportation, that wants to develop a ship that would far exceed the Concorde to explore the commercial possibilities of hypersonic flights.
His goal: to travel the around 7,000 kilometers that separate Dubai and Shanghai in 60 minutes. For now, the company wants to launch its first suborbital touring test in 2025 and achieve “full-scale global hypersonic vehicle flight” by 2030.
From supersonic to hypersonic flights. What Space Transportation or the Hermeus company proposes are hypersonic flights. The Chinese firm proposes that its ship can reach 7,000 miles per hour, the equivalent of 11,300 km/h. The second, founded by former employees of SpaceX, Generation Orbit and Blue Origin, has specified that their plane, which they have already dubbed the Quarterhorse, will achieve a range of 4,600 miles -approximately 7,400 kilometers- when it travels at Mach 5, five times higher to the speed of sound propagation in air.
With these data, its technology will far exceed that of the emblematic Concorde, a supersonic passenger plane that began its regular service in 1973 and ended up definitively retiring in 2003 due to its high costs and the accident that one of its units starred in three years earlier in Paris, a tragic episode that ended the lives of all those traveling on board. The spacecraft was traveling at a maximum height of 18,300 m and 2,179 km/h, twice the speed of sound.
The bet of the industry and the administrations. Scenarios like the one drawn by Space Transportation, in which a businessman could attend a meeting in London and sleep that same day at his house in Tokyo, have captured the interest of the industry and the administration. Since NASA demonstrated the possibilities of hypersonic flights with its X-43 unmanned aircraft in the 1990s, steps have been taken with the aim of achieving operations with passengers. In 2020 Rolls-Royce and Reaction Engines announced that they were working on a turbine to propel beyond Mach 5. The business niche has also attracted other companies, such as the start up Venus Aerospace.
Reaction Engines explained at the time that its approach is to achieve a means of transport for high-speed passengers already for the next decade. “It doesn’t have to go to Mach 5. It can be Mach 4.5, which requires easier physics,” one of its managers, Adam Dissel, told the BBC. With a similar speed, a passenger could travel from Los Angeles to Tokyo in two hours. He wouldn’t even give her time to watch the new Batman movie. Much of the research on hypersonic flight also comes from the military sphere and focuses on weaponry, such as ICBM missiles. His interest is not new. In the 1960s, the US was already testing its X-15 rocket plane.
The interest in supersonic flights. With the still recent memory of the Concorde, both the industry and the administrations are also working on technologies that make it possible to iron out the technical challenges of supersonic flights. NASA, for example, is developing the X-59, a supersonic spacecraft with which it hopes to minimize the noise generated by this type of aircraft when it exceeds the speed of sound. The agency has already advanced that this year will be “fundamental” for the project. Other relevant players are Virgin Galactic or Boom Technology and its Boom Overture, capable of flying at Mach 1.7. United Airlines plans to buy 50 units.
But… are they viable? In 2003, when he retired, a ticket on the Concorde plane cost approximately 6,500 euros. One of the reasons it disappeared, beyond the 2000 incident, was precisely its high cost. With these precedents, the great unknown is: Will operations such as those proposed by Space Transportation be profitable? While waiting for the company to go from theory to reality, there are reports that, at the very least, show that the idea is not so far-fetched. CNN cites at least two market studies that point in that direction.
The first, from Deloitte, which is based on data endorsed by NASA and assesses factors such as speed, load capacity or range, reaches a clear conclusion: there is enough demand to pay for high-speed transport. Basically, the service would be used by clients who are now forced to resort to regular transport planes or private jets, a more exclusive solution, but which does not offer, by far, the times of a hypersonic flight. The second, produced by BryceTech and SAIC, analyzes speeds between Mach 2 and Mach 7 and reaches a similar conclusion.
The potential of transoceanic flights. The big business, logically, would be in long-haul operations, the most extensive. transoceanic flights. Specifically, Deloitte’s analysis identifies some promising markets: New York-London, Miami-Sao Paulo, New York-Paris, Los Angeles-Sydney and Sydney-Singapore. In total, it indicates a market of 90 routes that move 2.5 million passengers per year and a potential of 16,500 million dollars in revenue. The second report also located 300 city pairs capable of supporting the business.
Time is money on high speed flights. One of the keys to the business, and not exactly minor, is the balance between the price and the duration of the journey. “The question is how many thousands of people a day are willing to pay full fare for first class. Would they be willing to pay double to go three or four times faster?” SABER (Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine).
Although thanks to its supersonic speed the Concorde allowed a notable time saving, passengers had to expect to be at the airport in advance and during their trips the ship did not always move at Mach 2. It is true that it allowed Phil Collins to give a concert in two continents in the same day; but for many businessmen that cut was not enough when planning their days. “However, if you can start to push above Mach 4, you get to a point where you could really get off the east coast of EEYY in the morning, be in London for meetings in the afternoon, and be back home that same day,” notes Dissel.
All that glitters is not gold: complications. In the future of hypersonic or supersonic commercial aviation, all is not gold, of course. Interested firms or administrations must first solve important challenges, both technical and regulatory or logistical. Space Transportation has published, for example, a video in which it shows a ship embedded in a structure in the form of a delta wing and propellers. The launch and landing are vertical and when the plane reaches the necessary height it separates from its reusable propellers.
Operations like this raise interesting questions, in addition to the safety certificates themselves: What will their emission levels be like? How to deal with the risks to the safety of travelers involved in flying at such high altitudes? What will happen to the sonic boom when flying over populated areas, precisely the problem NASA is facing with its X-59? And the high fuel and maintenance costs that weighed down Concorde? Not to mention the technical challenge of building ships that, like those proposed by Hermeus, will travel Mach 5 and have to deal with surprisingly high speeds and levels of thermal friction.
An (exciting) horizon years ahead. Regardless of the questions raised by hypersonic flights, one thing is clear: exciting years lie ahead. Hermeus is already testing a new engine that, he says, will be able to reach Mach 5. At the moment he is considering it for a drone for the US Air Force, but on a larger scale he could power a passenger plane. The horizon that it handles for the first test flight is 2029. In the case of Space Transportation, which in August obtained 47 million dollars in financing, it plans to start with suborbital test flights in the middle of the decade and later move on to those of “global hypersonic vehicle”.
The range of the plane with the new Hermeus engine will be 4,000 nautical miles, enough to complete transatlantic routes, but not yet to connect large cities separated by the Pacific, such as Los Angeles or Tokyo. Work is already done. In 2004 NASA’s X-43A drone achieved a milestone by briefly reaching Mach 9.6 and in 2013 the Boeing X-51 clocked Mach 5.1 for several minutes. Much earlier, in 1967, the X-15 test plane had already achieved Mach 6.7 in a manned operation. In all these cases, the aircraft had to be launched from a height. As for ships with jet engines, instead of rockets, the SR-71 stands out, with Mach 3.3.
Pictures | Space Transportation and Hermeus
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism