Nasa study examines demand for Mach-4 passenger jet service

The research was done as part of its Quesst mission which aims to develop a more silent supersonic airplane for commercial operations.
Jijo Malayil
An illustration of a high-supersonic commercial passenger aircraft
An illustration of a high-supersonic commercial passenger aircraft


Aiming at reducing travel times for inter-continental journeys, NASA is exploring the possibilities of a passenger jet that can cross the Mach 4 speed barrier. The space agency is toying with the idea that may enable travelers to fly from New York City to London up to four times faster than is now possible. 

The commercial case for supersonic passenger air travel on theoretically capable aircraft that could reach speeds between Mach 2 and Mach 4 (1,535-3,045 mph at sea level) was recently examined by NASA. Today's bigger airplanes, in contrast, fly at around 600 mph, or 80% of the speed of sound.

According to the agency, the response to its survey to gauge if commercial markets could support such supersonic flights came out positive. It concluded that "potential passenger markets exist in about 50 established routes that connect cities," said Nasa. 

Quesst Mission

Nasa is already in the works, under the Quesst mission to develop a more silent supersonic airplane for commercial operations, and is nearing its final developmental stages. 

The aircraft's (named X-59) quieter booms are intended to enable Mach 1.4 flight, and as of late December, the agency had completed the integration of the aircraft's 13-foot-long, 22,000-pound General Electric Aviation engine.

“We conducted similar concept studies over a decade ago at Mach 1.6-1.8, and those resulting roadmaps helped guide NASA research efforts since, including those leading to the X-59. These new studies will refresh those looks at technology roadmaps and identify additional research needs for a broader high-speed range," said Lori Ozoroski, project manager for NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology Project.

NASA's Quesst mission also intends to give information to regulators that will enable them to amend the laws governing overland supersonic flying. This year saw the United States mark its 50th anniversary of a federal order prohibiting non-military aircraft from flying faster than the speed of sound and carrying out commercial operations.

The road ahead

The next stage of high-speed transport research, conducted by NASA's Advanced Air Vehicles Programme (AAVP), will include awarding two 12-month contracts to businesses to create concept designs and technological roadmaps. The roadmaps will examine potential routes for air travel, list dangers and difficulties, and list the technology required to achieve Mach 2-plus speed.

According to the agency, Boeing is heading the initial team with partners Exosonic, GE Aerospace, Georgia Tech Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory, Rolls-Royce North American Technologies, and others. The second team, which includes Rolls-Royce North American Technologies, Blue Ridge Research and Consulting, and Boom Supersonic, is led by Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems.

“The design concepts and technology roadmaps are really important to have in our hands when the companies are finished. We are also collectively conscious of the need to account for safety, efficiency, economic, and societal considerations. It’s important to innovate responsibly so we return benefits to travelers and do no harm to the environment," said Mary Jo Long-Davis, NASA’s Hypersonic Technology Project manager.

The decision to continue the study with their funds will be made by NASA and its business and academic partners when the industry engagement phase is over.

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