High-Mach projects take shape
If commercial supersonic flight does return to the skies, chances are it will look something like the Overture. Prospective Concorde successor Boom Supersonic unveiled a ‘refined’ design for its supersonic airliner, designed to fly at up to Mach 1.7 over water and Mach 0.94 over land. Based on 26 million hours of simulation, the 65-80-passenger aircraft now includes four engines rather than two, which Boom says will reduce noise and decrease costs for airlines when Overture starts flying later this decade.
Hypersonic Air Vehicle Experimental (HVX) programme clearly has no lack of ambition also, but its aims present some considerable challenges. Air temperatures reach more than 1,000ºC at speeds of Mach 5 and above, and that stress will quickly build up on the engine and airframe over multiple flights. Thankfully, the precise expertise needed to overcome such hurdles is developed.
Sustainable change needed
Aviation is only 2-3% of mankind’s total carbon footprint, however, whilst every other industry is successfully decarbonising, the reality – if you ignore the glitch that is Covid – of air transport is that it has been reducing its per-passenger mile carbon footprint by about 2% year-on-year, but it’s been growing by about 5% year-on-year, the 3% difference being our fundamental problem. So there is a risk that the industry outgrow everybody else’s carbon reductions and end up the world’s largest emitter, which we are keen as an industry not to do.
There could no longer be any doubt – the aerospace sector must become more sustainable.
Hydrogen propulsion is closer
Sustainable flight options could arrive sooner than expected thanks to the development of key technologies. Hyper-conducting systems would use onboard liquid hydrogen as a heat sink, cooling electrical conductors to less than -200°C to dramatically reduce their electrical resistivity. This reduction in resistivity would enable electrical power distribution at low voltage, lower-mass conducting cables, and electric motors with over 99% efficiency, helping enable rapid scaling of hydrogen-electric flight from 19 or 48 passengers to 96 and beyond.
Hydrogen flight is already well under way and some companies are planing to bring a 9-19-seat aircraft into service in 2024. Also several concepts from larger OEMS are being proposed and the industry is looking seriously on how to include liquid hydrogen in the powerplant.
Horizontal satellite launch
Large tactical airlifters have been safely airdropping troops, supplies and vehicles around the world for decades. What if they could launch satellites into orbit as well.
That is the plan of the space launch company Astraius, which aims to avoid the challenges of conventional vertical launch by instead loading smaller launch vehicles into the back airlifters. After launching and reaching the optimal altitude and position, the rear cargo doors would open and ‘drogue’ parachutes would deploy from the pallet holding the rocket. Extraction chutes would follow, pulling the pallet out of the plane, before further chutes slow its fall and correct its orientation. The launch vehicle would then separate and ignite its solid rocket motor in the first stage, heading towards orbit. The system will have a payload capacity of 800kg to low Earth orbit or 380kg to Sun-synchronous orbit – more than horizontal launch pioneer Virgin Orbit, which has capacity for 300kg and 500kg respectively. The launch will not need a modified carrier aircraft avoiding purchase and operations costs.
Flying taxis prepare for take-off
After years of hype, eVTOLs – commonly referred to as flying taxis – also appeared closer to take-off. The company Vertical Aerospace, announce mores than 1,000 pre-orders life-size model of its electric VX4 aircraft – but a real 1:1 aircraft was also nearing a summer test flight campaign.
The focus of the project really is to demonstrate that all of the constituent pieces are available to allow advanced air mobility to take off and flourish in both an urban and a regional environment.
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