Recently, we’ve seen quite a few headlines about traveling faster than the speed of sound. For example, the startup Venus Aerospace wants to reach 12 times the speed of sound. That’s nine-thousand miles per hour, and would bring you from New York to Frankfurt in less than half an hour.
NASA is working on a Quiet SuperSonic airplane called X fifty-nine, that’s supposed to have a reduced sonic boom and be ready in twenty-twenty-four. The American Airline United announced they want to offer supersonic flights by twenty-twenty-nine. And Boeing as well as some other companies have made deals with the US military about developing hypersonic missiles. How seriously should you take these headline? What’s the difference between supersonic and hypersonic? And what’s with those missiles? That’s what we’ll talk about today.
First things first, what is hypersonic flight? Is it just a fancy name to mean really fast? You know… hyperfast! No. Hypersonic flight is defined as flight above Mach 5. The Mach number tells you how many times faster than the speed of sound you are moving. So, moving at Mach 1 through a medium means you are moving at the speed of sound in that medium. Below Mach 0.8 you’re subsonic. The range from 0.8 to 1.2 is called transonic. Between Mach 1.2 and 5 you’re Supersonic, and faster than Mach 5 is hypersonic.
What happens once you fly faster than sound? A plane emits noise that travels outwards into all directions, at the speed of sound, but in rest with the air, not with the plane. If the plane moves below the speed of sound, some of the sound moves ahead of the plane. But if you reach the speed of sound, the plane moves exactly with the sound, and the sound piles up along a cone creating a shock-wave. This is what creates the supersonic boom. You can’t hear the plane coming, but you hear a loud bang once it’s passed by.
Actually, a plane usually creates two shockwaves, one at the front and one at the back of the plane. This means there are really two supersonic booms and if the plane is large enough, you can hear them separately. Here’s an example from the Concorde.
The supersonic boom happens at any speed above the speed of sound though it’s the loudest directly at the sound barrier since the sound spreads out somewhat more at higher speeds. For this reason, supersonic flights are currently forbidden over populated areas, they’re just too loud.
But what’s so special about Mach 5 that everything above is “hypersonic”? It’s somewhat of an arbitrary definition, but it’s roughly at about Mach 5 that some “funny effects” start to become important, effects that either don’t happen or aren’t important at lower speeds.
What are those “funny effects”? The issue with hypersonic flying is what physicists call “stagnation points.” If you have an object that’s flying through a gas fast enough, it’ll basically stop the flow of gas at some places. But the kinetic energy from the gas molecules has to go somewhere, and that increases the temperature to what’s called the “stagnation temperature”. Problem is, this stagnation temperature increases quickly with the Mach number.
The equation that relates the two looks like this, where T naught is the stagnation temperature and T the temperature before stagnation. M is the Mach number, and γ is a constant that depends on the medium. For air, γ is about 1.4. As you can see, the temperature increases with the square of the Mach number. That’s a problem.
Let’s plug in some numbers for illustration. If you are flying at an altitude of about twelve kilometers, like an average overseas flight, T is about 219 Kelvin, or a little below -50C. For Mach 1 this gives a stagnation temperature of about 260 Kelvin, so not much happens.
But already for Mach 2 the stagnation temperature is 390 Kelvin, that’s 117 Celsius. Next time you fly on a fighter jet don’t stick your hand out of the window. At Mach 5 the stagnation temperature is 1300 Kelvin and by Mach 8 you have 3000 Kelvin. At that temperature, most metals melt. That’s not good.
And it’s not enough to keep the metal from melting, because materials weaken long before they melt and also, the pressure increases along with the temperature. Worse, in these conditions out-of-equilibrium chemical processes occur, causing molecules to split or ionize.
Well, you may say, what about rockets, seems to work for them. Indeed, for example, the space shuttle was flying regularly at Mach 25. But. The thing with rockets is they go up. And if you go up, the atmosphere thins out and eventually ends, so air resistance is no longer a problem. The space shuttle left the atmosphere at “only” about Mach 3. Flying hypersonic in the atmosphere, that’s what’s the problem.
And we don’t want to do it with a rocket engine, but with a jet engine. The difference is that a rocket uses combustion with additional oxygen supply, and the rocket carries the source of the oxygen with it. That’s why they work in outer space. Jet engines on the contrary, take in and push out air. They are what’s called “air-breathing” machines. This requires less fuel and makes them lighter.
So how do you get to hypersonic speeds without melting the aircraft? Well the obvious thing is to use materials with extraordinarily high melting points. Among the most promising materials are Tantalum carbide and hafnium carbide with melting temperatures above four-thousand Kelvin. But that isn’t enough. To get beyond Mach 5, you need to redesign the whole engine. Interestingly, and maybe contrary to what you might have expected, you do this by removing parts.
In a jet engine, air enters the engine from the front is compressed with rotating blades. This heats the air, which is then mixed with fuel in the combustion chamber. But above about Mach 3 the air which enters the engine is hot and compressed just because it’s being slowed down so much, so one doesn’t need the compressor. The thing that’s left is called a ramjet, called that way because it “rams” into the air.
A ramjet can’t fly below Mach 3 because it doesn’t have a compressor, so it needs to be launched by other planes. But it works up to about Mach 6. Above that, temperature and pressure get too high to have good combustion
So why don’t we just keep the air flowing through the engine, instead of slowing it down, which causes the heating? Indeed, great idea. If you do this, you get what’s called a scramjet, short for Supersonic Combustion Ramjets.
The Scramjet design greatly alleviate the heating problem inside the engine. Scramjets are basically tubes with some divisions inside where fuel is injected into the air – they don’t even have moving parts. The problem with Scramjets is that the air goes in and out the other end in about a millisecond, and it’s also turbulent. So the challenge is to find the right shape to control the turbulence and get the fuel where it needs to be. Scramjets work from about 4 Mach upward. The current speed record is Mach 9.6 and is held by NASA’s X-43 jet.
In 2013 Boeing’s X-51 scramjet broke a record. It was the first scramjet to use jet fuel instead of hydrogen and had a more lightweight design. The record that it broke was not that of speed (it just flew a bit over Mach 5) but that of duration: it flew for 3.5 minutes.
Yes, you heard that right. 3.5 minutes. That’s the record. And don’t forget that to launch, it first had to be carried aboard a B-52, then accelerated to Mach 4.5 with a rocket booster.
The leader of the team that designed the X-51, Kevin Bowcutt, delivered a TED talk in which he envision a future when people take hypersonic flights regularly and he claims that a way to do it would be to use antimatter as fuel... Hahaha.
Ok, so I’m somewhat skeptic we’ll see hypersonic commercial flights in the near future. Not only, as you have seen, isn’t the technology ready, the whole process is also ridiculously fuel consuming. When it comes to supersonic flights, NASA seems to have made good progress in alleviating the problem with the supersonic boom by smart design. This is neat but doesn’t really do anything about the fuel problem.
This makes me think we might see some supersonic flights but they’ll probably remain rare and expensive. Personally I think it makes much more sense to look for a mode of transportation in which you excavate a tube or tunnel to lower air pressure, such as the hyperloop, because that way it becomes dramatically easier to reach high speeds.
So much about hypersonic travel, but what’s with those hypersonic weapons? It seems we’re in the middle of a hypersonic arms race between the United States, Russia and China. Russia recently became the first nation to deploy a hypersonic missile, tested in December 2018. And the Chinese have created a new hypersonic wind tunnel that, if you trust the Chinese media reaches up to 30 Mach. If you don’t trust them it’s still 22 Mach.
The budgets for this research are, one could say, stratospheric. For 2021, U.S. research agencies have allocated 3 point 2 billion US dollars for hypersonic weapons research, up from 2 point 6 billion in the previous year.
The attraction is easy to understand: at these speeds the enemy just doesn’t time have to react to the missile. The path of “normal” ballistic missiles is easy to predict, so anti-missile systems can target and destroy them. They’re also easy to see coming by radar because they fly high. But hypersonic missile are fast, can fly low and only appear on the radar late, and can unpredictably change direction, so by the time you see them it might be too late to do anything about it.
But is it all advantages? No, according to a paper by researchers from MIT, that appeared in January 2021. That’s because common ballistic missiles fly at high altitudes where the air pressure is really low and reaching hypersonic speeds is fairly easy. They then simply fall down, but even so still hit the ground at hypersonic speed. According to the MIT researchers, with an optimal trajectory, a ballistic missile would even be faster than a hypersonic glider.
They calculate that for a distance of 8500 kilometers, the hypersonic glider would take 28 minutes, and the optimized ballistic path only 25 minutes. They claim that the threat from hypersonic weapons has been exaggerated by military officials, quite possibly to get funding. In their paper, they write:
“It is commonly claimed that hypersonic weapons can reduce warhead delivery times by reaching their targets faster than existing ballistic missiles could. In 2019 testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command addressed this delivery time issue. Asked how long it would take a Russian hypersonic glide weapon to strike the United States, he responded: “it is a shorter period of time. The ballistic missile is roughly 30 minutes. A hypersonic weapon, depending on the design, could be half of that, depending on where it is launched from, the platform. It could be even less than that.””
The researchers then explain “The implication that a hypersonic missile could halve the time necessary to deliver a warhead between Russia and the United States—while false—subsequently permeated the U.S. discourse, fueling narratives of the revolutionary nature of these weapons.”
They also claim that even though land radars cannot detect missiles flying low until they are too close, because they are behind the Earth curvature, hypersonic vehicles flying inside an atmosphere are actually easy to detect. That’s because they become so terribly hot that they can be seen from satellites with infrared detectors. They conclude that the performance and strategic implications of hypersonic weapons would be comparable to those of established ballistic missile technologies.
So, my conclusion from all this is that we might well see some supersonic passenger flights again in the next decades, but I doubt they’ll become common, and hypersonic missiles are an overhyped threat. We have better things to worry about.