Japanese Space Agency, NASA May Develop Supersonic Jet

Stung by repeated setbacks, Japan's space agency plans to start talks next month with NASA about jointly developing a supersonic successor to the retired Concorde, an official said Monday.

Japan is trying to leapfrog ahead in the aerospace field with a plan to build a next-generation airliner that can fly between Tokyo and Los Angeles in about three hours.

But a string of glitches, including a nose cone problem during the latest test flight in March, has led the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to look for an international partner.

"In the future, we think we need some kind of cooperation with NASA," JAXA spokesman Kiyotaka Yashiro said. "Every developed country is doing some kind of research, the U.S., Europe and Russia. International cooperation is essential."

Japanese researchers and engineers plan to meet counterparts from the U.S. space agency next month to discuss possible cooperation, Yashiro said, calling the June meeting a "first step."

Yashiro's comments came in response to a Japanese newspaper report that said JAXA would ally with NASA and the U.S.-based aerospace giant Boeing Co. on the next stage of development.

Japan is expected to develop the engine, which would generate 1 percent of the noise of the Concorde, while Boeing builds the airframe, the Nihon Keizai newspaper said.

Yashiro said the report was premature and that no decisions have been made on partners.

A breakthrough in supersonic flight could help transform Japan's aerospace industry. The country, which does much of the parts manufacturing for Boeing, has only a limited domestic airplane industry.

Japan aims to have the Concorde's successor making regular flights by 2025, Yashiro said. But research will still be needed through the next 10 years before a prototype can be built, he added.

Among the hurdles are two difficulties that plagued the Concorde, jet-engine noise and high fuel consumption.

Japan has already successfully tested an engine that can theoretically reach speeds of up to mach 5.5, or more than five times the speed of sound.

But test flights of an arrow-shaped test model over the Australian desert have had mixed results.

In one incident, the aircraft prematurely separated from its booster rocket and crashed. Then, in a much-vaunted March 30 trial, the airplane failed to reach its target altitude and the nose cone cover failed to jettison as planned.

The Concorde first flew in 1969 and became a symbol of French and European industrial acumen. But the planes were retired from commercial service in October 2003, never having recouped the billions of tax dollars invested in them.

The Concorde exploded in flames after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris on July 25, 2000. The accident, which killed the 109 people on board, presaged an end to the career of the sleek but costly supersonic aircraft.

The Japanese project uses a so-called Supersonic Combustion Ramjet — or scramjet — engine that was designed for speeds of up to 5,000 mph, or 10 times the speed of conventional aircraft.

The United States has already carried out a flight test with a scramjet engine, while the European Union, Japan, China, Russia and India are in different stages of testing their technologies.

Japanese companies slated to participate in the venture include Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. and Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co.