There’s no doubt that travel has evolved over the course of human history. While pedestrian travel and movement by riding animals were once the only means of getting around, automobiles, trains and planes eventually became the norm. With time, even those methods of transportation have evolved, and today, hypersonic speed no longer exists in the realm of science fiction.
Historically, the fastest commercial plane to have existed is believed to be the Tupolev Tu-144. It is reported that the Tu-144 reached speeds of around 1,400 miles per hour in the 1980s. Close behind the Tu-144 is the Concorde which had a measured plane speed of 1,350 miles per hour.
The Concorde also made a flight from New York to London in just under three hours. The fastest jet speed recorded comes from the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a military jet that has achieved reported speeds of 2,100 miles per hour.
With hypersonic speed, however, aircraft have the potential to travel many times faster than existing records. Hypersonic speed is any speed that is above Mach five, but some researchers argue that this figure should be closer to Mach 10 instead. Regardless, hypersonic speeds can clock in at 3,836 miles per hour and above, meaning they have the potential to revolutionize human and cargo transport on Earth and beyond.
Hypersonic Vs. Supersonic Jet Speeds
Although hypersonic and supersonic sometimes get used interchangeably by laypeople, these are two different things. Before understanding the difference between hypersonic and supersonic, however, it’s first important to understand how these speeds are calculated.
When something moves through the air, it causes air displacement. When moving slowly, this displacement happens at such a rate that air pressure doesn’t build up to remarkable levels. When something moves fast enough, however, the speed of displaced air moving around the object leads to air compression and remarkable air pressure.
By calculating the ratio of the speed of the object to the speed of sound in the compressed air, a Mach number is generated. Mach comes from the last name of the creator of the Mach numbering method, physicist Ernst Mach.
Subsonic speeds are speeds that are less than Mach one. Supersonic speeds are speeds that are greater than Mach one. Hypersonic speeds are speeds that are greater than Mach five. This means that subsonic travel will always be less than the speed of sound or about 1,125 feet per second.
Supersonic speeds will always be faster than the speed of sound and hypersonic speeds can reach over 7,000 miles per hour. Of course, when hypersonic speeds are reached, actual speeds vary and much of the thinking on the topic is theoretical as testing is ongoing.
Are Hypersonic Aircraft The Future Of Travel?
Although hypersonic jet technology is still in the early and experimental phases, testing has shown progress and promise in this exciting move toward faster travel for both commercial and military applications.
As to the latter point, although hypersonic plane speeds have been the major point of focus for testing, hypersonic flight achieved by missiles and other projectiles is one of the main goals of military testing.
Aside from the physics involved in attaining and maintaining hypersonic speed, another consideration is safety. Reaching Mach numbers places a lot of strain on aircraft and the human body. This has been demonstrated in Air Force pilot testing and NASA astronaut training.
Additionally, when moving through the air at high speeds, aircraft that collide with even small objects could result in devastating consequences. As such, hypersonic speed testing needs to figure out how to relieve these concerns before high-speed commuter and cargo transport becomes viable.
As to whether or not hypersonic aircraft will be employed for commuter travel remains to be seen, but the potential for utilizing this technology in space travel seems likely. Due to the distance required and the time needed for space travel, it looks more likely that the space tourism industry would benefit from hypersonic speeds.
Additionally, NASA and similar government agencies have been experimenting with hypersonic travel as a means to get astronauts and equipment to and from orbit, Mars and other planets in the future.