Is hypersonic commercial air travel realistic?

It has been more than a decade since the supersonic Concorde jet took its final commercial flight. Since then, the development of high speed air travel has stalled. Now, a successful test flight by a team that wants to build a “hypersonic jet” has brought new life to this futuristic idea.

A successful first test

On May 18, a team of scientists and designers from the U.S. and Australiatested their ultra-fast jet idea in the Australian desert, launching a rocket that was able to reach a speed of Mach 7.5. That bumped it up from supersonic status (faster than the speed of sound) to “hypersonic” speed. Hypersonic is generally understood to be above Mach 5. For this particular rocket, the speed was approximately 5,700 miles per hour.

The test has understandably earned a lot of buzz in the media. People were quick to point out that if a passenger plane was able to travel at Mach 7.5 for an extended amount of time, it could make a trip from Australia to the UK in about two hours. Transatlantic flights, meanwhile, would be measured in minutes, not hours.

Will such speeds ever really be possible for commercial aircraft? 

There will certainly be a military application for hypersonic aircraft before there is a commercial one. In fact, the U.S. and Australian defense departments were both involved in the latest test, as this technology could be a huge advantage on the battlefield. A missile or unmanned plane that could travel at such speeds would mean that the target would not have time to react once the craft was visible on radar.

According to a scientist involved in the project, the Australia test was a big step forward.  Alex Zelinsky, chief scientist for Australia’s DoD, said that “the success of this test launch takes us one step closer to the realization of hypersonic flight. It is a game-changing technology…  and could revolutionize global air travel, providing cost-effective access to space.”

Unfortunately, hypersonic commercial flights are probably a very long way off.

Speed doesn’t matter for commercial airlines right now

In fact, the air travel industry seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Lighter, more fuel efficient planes are the order of the day. Because these have smaller engines, they do not travel as quickly as past commercial models. At this time, there is little desire to push for the development of faster commercial planes.

Tackling issues one at a time

The first issue that has to be dealt with is not how humans would respond to traveling at such high speeds, but how the craft itself will be able to stand up to the heat generated by moving at more than 5,000 miles per hour. One of the main reasons for the test in Australia was to see if the body could hold up under such speeds. It did.

The development will move forward in “baby steps.” The next  test, scheduled for next year, will involve trying to get the hypersonic jet itself to separate from the rocket.

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A final test flight for this initial exploratory project will take place in 2018.

Developing the fundamentals of this new technology

This does not mean that Delta Air Lines will be ordering a commercial version of a hypersonic jet in 2019. Successful tests, however, may convince investors and governments that this kind of project is worth spending money on.

It will probably be decades before these planes are even considered for commercial use. The current tests are only meant to explore the “fundamental technologies” needed for propelling an aircraft at such speeds.  If such a plane is ever created, it will undoubtedly have to go through a long testing and regulatory process before it is deemed safe for commercial passengers.

So, the short answer is "no," most of us won’t be hopping on a hypersonic jet in our lifetimes. However, the technology is being developed, and at this very early stage, things look promising.