Aeronautics Technology : Hypersonic Aviation & Supersonic Aviation

By: Yashraj Khaitan


En route on the mach 4.7 supersonic jet, I flipped open my iTV , which connected me to the most advanced space network, spacecast. The usual news was being broadcast; "NASCOM, the space people have started mining a new mineral on the moon which is almost identical to Uranium; the Americans have come out with yet another version of the unmanned X-67 which maneuvers itself at mach 25 (courtesy nuclear fusion engines!); the international space station at Mars has discovered a revolutionary microorganism that can be used to fight multiple cancer, a predominant disease on Earth". Yes, this is the age I'm living in, and when I look back in time at the history of aviation, it leaves me flabbergasted. The history of AVIATION commenced in the 20th century, and a few lucky people who were witness to the first tentative flight of the Wright Brothers, managed to live through these 150 years (through medical advancement of course!) to witness the hypersonic X-67s as well. As Robert Wall once rightly said (towards the end of the 20th century), "So rapid has been the development of aeronautical science that no one can say with safety that an end has been reached or that there is any limit to the ability of man to develop flight at the same pace in the next century."1

Today, in 2057, man has traveled a long way in the field of civil and space aviation. Advancements that were merely probable 5 decades ago are possible and practical today. All these developments are a consequence of decades of stupendous achievements in space exploration. Half a century ago, landing human astronauts on Mars was within the bounds of possibility. However, today, successful implementation of hypersonic space travel and use of geodesic domes have not only enabled man to experience the surface of Mars, but have also helped him estabilish cyborg colonies there. In addition to the Moon, even Mars is available now, for scientific exploration! The international space station on Mars, in addition to helping scientists in their research work, has facilitated in mitigating the power crisis, which at present is history! After the establishment of The International Lunar Base Station in 2037, man has passed several milestones in setting up a long term colony on the moon. Today, the hotels on the moon go full with increasing number of world, or rather space, citizens going on lunar holidays! A fleet of spaceships taking space tourists high above the atmosphere is now a routine affair. These spaceships are improved versions of Spaceshiptwo, which took Santosh George of India along with other space tourists to as high as 55000 feet, enabling them to experience the excitement of weightlessness and the thunderous deceleration of aerodynamic drag on reentry, in 20072. In addition, disputes between industries, over the acquisition of lunar land for mining have become fairly common.

At the start of the 21st century, the failure of NASA's Mars lander caused despondency over the failure of its apparently reliable technology and put a question mark over other similar systems3. However, perennial human effort and incessant advancement in hypersonic space travel have led to the innovation of extraordinarily efficient probes which are now meeting the challenge of unearthing secrets about the solar system's remotest planets. For example: a recent probe that has been sent to Pluto weighs only 570 pounds and stands almost 10 feet tall and 27 feet wide. It is composed of 19 solar panels, an extremely light nano-fission engine, and is controlled by an onboard computer. The probe functions by harnessing the light energy of the Sun. At present the fission engines are taking it close to the Sun. Once it is sufficiently close, the fission engines would shut down and light energy from the Sun would push the probe towards Pluto with a tremendous amount of force. The probe would then constantly accelerate and reach hypersonic speeds enabling scientists to have a glimpse of the details of Pluto within their lifetimes!

The innovation of the controlled nuclear fusion engine, after the ion and fission engines, in 2031, was by far the most significant advancement in space travel. It enabled spacecraft to reach astonishing speeds. Many decades ago, scientists deciphered that scarce and expensive raw materials exist in abundance on asteroids in our solar system. Today, aeronautical geeks have succeeded in designing manned aircraft, run by fusion engines that travel at supersonic speeds to these asteroids. They are slowed down, when close to the asteroid's surface and then are made to land by making use of the asteroid's relatively low gravity. During this rendezvous, with a suitable asteroid, the spacecraft uses abundant solar energy to extract and refine metals like gold and platinum and then the fusion engines power them back to Earth.4

In order to aid space travel and further exploit the hypersonic travel technology, a set of 5 astronomical telescopes, linked by laser, 100 times more powerful than the antiquated Hubble Space Telescope of the 20th century, was deployed in space in 20255 with the aid of space stations and hypersonic jets. Through these telescopes, we have been able to probe deeper into the universe and directly study details of planets in the Milky Way, without having to study the wobbling of stars.

This was just a glimpse of the hypersonic space travel in my age! Now, let's delve into the advancement of supersonic and hypersonic travel in civil aviation. Civil aviation is governed by practicality and affordability. And when supersonic travel is looked at with these factors in mind, its picture seems somewhat blurred. Although, supersonic and hypersonic travel is easily available for civil aviation, its use is restricted only to the elite class. Four decades ago, hypersonic travel could take you anywhere on the planet in 4 hours6. Today, it can take you in just 2 hours! If the world population is transported from one corner of the globe to the other, then, oh my! The gas guzzling machines and sonic booms, created close to the earth's surface, would simply attract the ire of environmentalists! Although this is the era of supersonic air travel, there also exists an alternative economic means of transport. No economy can ignore such basic realities. Even today we need economically viable means for mass transportation. So, where speed is not essential, the principles of freight transportation have been applied to mass travel. Non-inflammable gases are used to lift huge airships propelled by turbines7. This technology has made air travel extremely cheap, resulting in a five fold increase in air traffic compared to that of 2007. Although technology is reaching new heights every day, socialism continues to be a speed breaker!

In addition to supersonic and hypersonic aircraft being used in civil aviation, air taxis with tilt rotors have also come into daily use.

Not needing a runway, these taxis can easily maneuver around the city. They help me land right in the center of a supermarket! In addition to the tilt rotors, which give them the vertical lift, they also make use of the ground effect that reduces the drag experienced by aircrafts8. This, thus, reduces the fuel consumption of the taxis. Bad news for environmentalists; they have one less topic to debate upon!

As far as the armed forces go, there is no stopping them! Billions were and are being spent to develop aircraft that are capable of traveling at such hypersonic speeds that they escape even the most efficient of all radars owned by their enemies. With the introduction of hypersonic travel, came the highly sensitive infrared radars that were capable of detecting the infrared radiation produced by the engines of these aircraft9.

Technology has constantly moved towards super automation. Way back in 2003, Arlen Rens', a Lockheed Martin test pilot, describing automation in aviation, said humorously: "Airplanes are now built to carry a pilot and a dog in the cockpit. The pilot's job is to feed the dog, and the dog's job is to bite the pilot if he touches anything!"10

Now, the question arises; how did we reach this pinnacle? How did we overcome all the inevitable challenges?

The main challenges were:

a) Financial: the sums invested to develop this technology dwarfed those involved in making possible the Apollo missions to the Moon!

b) Biological: traversing long distances in space meant spending years in space in zero gravity conditions. The human body cannot adapt to stresses greater than 9g and react to situations as fast as machines. The human mind is incapable of making 1 million inferences per second unlike machines!

c) Technological: reaching high levels of automation required integrating man and machine, and the functioning of diverse systems in perfect synchronization over longer distances and timescales with a minimum of maintenance.11

d) Environmental and Ecological: sonic booms produced by supersonic and hypersonic aircrafts were a great threat to mankind, and wildlife12. Even if man could somehow artificially adapt his hearing sensibilities to sonic booms, he could possibly not dissuade animal activists from protesting against hypersonic travel. Apart from this, supersonic airlines of that age utilized gas guzzling engines, dependant upon dwindling petroleum supplies.

It has truly been a daunting task for man to find an answer to everything through technology. It is spellbinding to know how he prevented technology from reaching a standstill, without betting on speed at the cost of mankind.

It was observed rightly by Thomas Friedman, in 2006, that "the world is getting flat". Outsourcing and around sourcing were the key to mutual cooperation, advancement, and ameliorating financial crises13 that would have otherwise brought about a pause in aviation technology. The cornerstones of cooperation, laid in the beginning of the 21st century, led to countries coming together to develop hypersonic and supersonic air travel. This has led us all to live in a more cooperative, rather than a competitive world. It was international cooperation that brought about the success of all the space projects since then and led to the establishment of international space stations.

The limiting reagent, in moving further down into space at hypersonic speeds, is the homo sapien! Although such speeds make one experience the tumbling alchemy of Earth and sky, the audacity, and miracle of flight, flying at stresses above 9g, in the Earth's atmosphere, causes human blood to drain down from the brain, thus, extinguishing vision or even consciousness. In the old gravity suit, pilots would strain against their glottis. This would shut breathing. In the new suits, the pilots are able to flex their body muscles with less force, thus, reducing fatigue. This has been made possible by using "fluid muscles", as they are called, which are independent of hoses and pressurized air on board, and reacts immediately to high g's. Besides this, suits have designed in such a way, that pilots can communicate with each other even while traveling at such hypersonic speeds14.

As far as space travel is concerned, man's shortcomings, both mental and physical, have been overcome by integrating him with machines. As Alwin Toffler predicted about 8 decades ago, the astronaut has become "an integral part of an ongoing micro-ecological process whirling through the vastnesses of space"15. What Theodore Gordon once said has come true. We have found that it would indeed be simpler "to provide life support in the form of machines that plug into the astronaut". In accordance with his vision, an astronaut is "fed intravenously using a liquid food compactly stored in remote pressurized tank". And "direct processing of body liquid wastes and conversion to water (is) accomplished by a new type of artificial kidney built in as part of the spaceship"16. Five decades ago, Professor Kevin Warwick, was able to connect his nervous system to his wife's nervous system through a computer. Looking at that development, it is not hard to believe that today the human brain is directly connected to the computer, controlling his spacecraft. Thus, his mind is able to run as fast as a computer and in turn the computer gets a brain to think. Thus, what can be seen is that, the astronaut is no longer a separate entity monitoring the aircraft; he is in fact a part of the whole process.

If one divides human existence into three phases, then I would say that the first phase extends from the birth of humans till the year 1920. The second phase covers the time from 1921 to 2000 and we are at present in the third phase. This can be clearly explained by seeing the advancements that took place during these three phases. During the third phase mankind has moved so fast that from Earthlings we have started becoming Marslings! The technology that made all this probability a possibility would make a 20th century dweller dumbstruck! What humans did was that they teraformed Mars and tailored it to their requirements. The first thing that was required was to heat up the exceedingly cold atmosphere. The toxic pollution on Earth served as a medicine for Mars. Pollution creating machines were dropped on Mars whose work was to suck up a mixture of dust and atmosphere and process them into greenhouse chemicals. These chemicals trapped the heat radiated by the Sun and heated the surface and atmosphere of Mars. Once Mars was warm enough, plants and trees were grown in geodesic domes, which in turn increased the oxygen content of the atmosphere, making human existence possible17. This led to the establishment of an Earth colony on Mars which in turn gave birth to the Mars space station. The future now, is thus, to further the use of this technology and make the whole of Mars a human colony.

The technology developed for scramjets to attain hypersonic speeds, brought out a solution to the fossil fuel crises. Decades ago, rocket engines used hydrogen as well as liquid oxygen. The weight marred their performance and efficiency. A scramjet carries only hydrogen and uses oxygen from the atmosphere instead. Thus, it turns out to be lighter and more efficient18. Moreover, it also proves to be environment friendly. Mark Lewis of the University of Maryland had once said, "Flying an air-breathing rocket system above Mach5; that's sort of the gleam in everyone's eye"19. And yes, today we are all witness to the result of that vision. Scramjets have made hypersonic travel in the civil sector possible and to an extent, environment friendly as well. They fly at hypersonic speeds only high above the Earth and thus avoid the ill-effects of a sonic boom, protecting animals as well as mankind. In addition to the scramjets, the ion, nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion engines are also an answer to the dwindling fossil fuel resources, since they efficiently use materials that are available in abundance on the Earth, Moon, and Mars. Besides this, scientists, with the aid of nanotechnology, are trying to devise methods to manipulate abundantly available elements at the atomic level and give them fossil fuel properties.

The problem of inventing a lightweight material that can endure the prolonged high temperatures of the flight engines, plus the heat of the air friction against the wings20, was taken care of by nanotechnology. By manipulating materials at the nanoscale, scientists were able to develop in 2020 a nano-aerogel from carbon which has excellent thermal properties. This material is used to insulate hypersonic aircrafts, which in turn are made up of sheets of carbon nanotubes and nanofibres that are 60 times tougher than steel and much lighter than graphite.

For all the above advancements to take place a perennial desire to achieve something better was required. In the words of a Pelican program manager, Blaine Rawdon: "From our perspective, anything that's already flying is history."21

From the very beginning of space exploration, most people have always thought it to be an extravagant luxury, affordable only by the superpowers, and only justifiable by them at times when questions of global prestige, between the competing systems of capitalism and communalism, were involved22. However, it has been practically shown that on an average, every dollar spent on the space program and/or aviation industry, results in 7 dollars paid back to the economy23. A list of spin-offs from space technology can be as varied as it is long.

The most significant of all spin offs was the result of the need for smaller and more powerful computers, which provided an incentive for the development of microchips. Development of rescue blankets, CCD chip technology, virtual reality systems, advanced keyboards, etc. are all a consequence of space technology. If these things seem vague to some people, they would be astonished to know how space technology has extended its wings to everyday articles like wheelchairs, school buses, batteries, television screens, home security systems, medicines, etc24. Besides this, the modern designs of hypersonic aircraft are the result of research carried out for spacecraft designs over the years. Thus, in some way or the other, we all owe our modern comforts to space technology.

Our forefather's of the 1960s knew that they were witnessing some of space exploration's "game changing events"25! With our present and near future focussed on Mars, our children may experience the same extraordinary odysseys. Today, we are on Mars and the Moon; tomorrow we might be on one of Jupiter's moons or even farther. The speed of sound has long been surpassed, and now man's mission is to approach the speed of light! This may seem like an impossible dream but we must remember that powered flight were seemed impossible when the Wright Brothers set out with their bamboo and canvas contraption to the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk almost one and a half century ago!



1 Robert Wall, A History of Airliners (Burlington Books: London 1980, rpt 1989) p 238.

2 Hindustan Times, New Delhi, March 15, 2007, p 1. "the Richard-Branson owned Virgin Galactic company that hopes to begin a new era in tourism in less than two years.

Apart from George, two US-based Indian Americans have also signed up for the two-hour flight, Louela Faria-Jones of Virgin Galactic told Hindustan Times from London. SpaceShipOne, a prototype of the space vehicle, flew to space three times in 2004, she said. George will fly on board the SpaceShipTwo, which has large windows, reclining seats, cabins the size of a Falcon 900 executive jet and wings approximately the size of a Boeing 757. It will carry six passengers and two pilots, Faria Jones said.

3 David Owen, Into Outer Space (Burlington Books: London 2000) p 135

4 Ibid, p138

5 Space: Episodes 3 and 4, VCD, B.B.C., 2001

6 Michael Klesius, "Wings of Change", National Geographic (National Geographic Society: Washington DC, December 2003), p 32

7 Wall, A History of Airliners, p 251

8 Klesius, "Wings of Change", National Geographic December 2003, p 25, 29

9 My own assessment

10 Klesius, "Wings of Change", National Geographic December 2003, p 13

11 Owen, Into Outer Space, p 137

12 Wall, A History of Airliners, p 238

13 Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat (Penguin Books: London, 2005)

14 Klesius, "Wings of Change", National Geographic December 2003, p 20,21

15 Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (Pan Books: London, 1971) p 196

16 Ibid, p 196

17 Space: Episodes 5 and 6, VCD, B.B.C., 2001

18 Klesius, "Wings of Change", National Geographic December 2003, p 32

19 Ibid, p 32

20 Ibid, p 32

21 Ibid, p 29

22 Owen, Into Outer Space, p 128

23 Ibid, p 128

24 Ibid, p 129

25 Jeffrey Kluger, "Nasa's Plan for a Lunar Comeback Gets a Big Boost", Time (Time Asia: Hong Kong, March 19, 2007), p 36.


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