PHOTO CAPTION: Concept illustration of Aerion supersonic business jet.

Building Musk's Supersonic Plane

Building a VTOL aircraft is an engineering challenge, but one that's been solved. Building a supersonic plane also poses its share of problems, but again, it's been done. Combining the two and powering them electrically... now that's another matter entirely.

Published: 16-Feb-2016

Late in January, residents along the New Jersey coast experienced some nine sonic booms over the course of a 90-minute period, raising concerns about a possible earthquake. It turns out that the US Navy was testing one of its F35C fighter planes off the coast as it smashed through the sound barrier at more than 700 mph.

Now imagine the anger that would result if that happened continuously, hour after hour as a steady stream of supersonic aircraft, both civilian, commercial and military soared overhead. According to NASA:

"On any given day, more than 87,000 flights are in the skies in the United States. Only one-third are commercial carriers, like American, United or Southwest. On an average day, air traffic controllers handle 28,537 commercial flights (major and regional airlines), 27,178 general aviation flights (private planes), 24,548 air taxi flights (planes for hire), 5,260 military flights and 2,148 air cargo flights (Federal Express, UPS, etc.). At any given moment, roughly 5,000 planes are in the skies above the United States."

The first sonic boom was created in 1947 as Chuck Yeager flew the Bell X-1 rocket plane passed the 770 mph mark (Mach 1.07), sending a sharp crack of sound cascading to the ground at Muroc Army Airfield in the California desert. Later it would become Edwards Air Force Base. The boom has bedeviled engineers and governments ever since. The Concorde supersonic jetliner was restricted to supersonic flight over open ocean as it flew its 100 passengers and nine crew members between the US East Coast and Europe. That severely limited its economic potential and eventually the planes were retired.

Now Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is musing about designing a supersonic plane that not only can fly beyond the speed of sound and take off and land vertically, but do it on electric power! Like his imaginative Hyperloop supersonic ground transportation system, such an aircraft would clearly stretch the limits of the possible in several different areas: energy storage density, high-power electronics, and aerodynamics.

Separately, all three are being addressed. Combining them will be the challenge. Let's take the sonic boom problem. Work over the last half decade at NASA has, in theory and in wind-tunnel tests, reduced the boom to a mere 'thumb'. Where the Concorde generated a perceived level of decibels (PLdB) 105, changes in the design of the aircraft and reducing its maximum operating speed to the Mach 1.6-1.8 range would make the boom barely perceptible on the ground. The Aerion Supersonic Business Jet concept illustrated in the below video, incorporates many of the features discovered by NASA researchers.

Of course, the Aerion replies on conventional kerosene burned in turbojet engines to produce the necessary thrust to reach high Mach numbers. With that comes the carbon dioxide and other pollutants and particulates that get exhausted into the upper layers of our atmosphere, further exacerbating climate change. A switch, if possible, to electric propulsion would minimize at least that aspect of the problem.

Airbus is, in fact, working on just such a concept: a hybrid of sorts called the Voltaire. It uses a single turbojet engine for cruising at altitude and a series of electric fanjets buried in the wings for take-offs and landings. Emissions and noise levels would be greatly improved, but the technology is thought to be at least a decade or more away.

Vertical take-off and landing are just as challenging. We have many examples of just such technology dating back to the early gyrocopters of the 1930s up to the military aircraft of today like the sonic boom-producing F35C. NASA engineers have even toyed with the concept of a personal electric VTOL called the "Puffin". Of course it's only a concept and it's definitely not supersonic.

How Musk's proposed electric supersonic VTOL would solve all these problems is yet to be seen, but as crazy as the Hyperloop sounded in 2013, there now are companies actually working on it. Who's to say Musk doesn't have another trick up his sleeve, combining some seemingly disparate theories and technologies into something that could someday whisk passengers across thousands of miles of ocean AND land in mere minutes while only momentarily disrupting the atmosphere as it slips almost noiselessly high overhead, powered by cutting edge technologies and imagination.

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