EADS, owner of plane maker Airbus, is developing a hypersonic jet that flies above the atmosphere, yet takes off from a regular runway and can fly from Paris to Tokyo in two and a half hours.
“It is not a Concorde but it looks like a Concorde, showing that aerodynamics of the 1960s were very smart”, said Jean Bottin, EADS Chief Technical Officer.
By flying above the atmosphere and using bio-fuel to initially get the plane off the ground, the group hopes to avoid the supersonic boom and pollution Concorde was notorious for. “When you are above the atmosphere nobody hears anything”, Bottin added.
Developed in collaboration with Japan, the plane is primarily designed with the business market in mind and could carry 50-100 passengers.
The concept project, known as ZEHST (Zero Emission High Speed Transport), comes as companies such as Virgin Galactic push forward with plans to take paying customers up on commercial space flights. Indeed, ZEHST is being developed using research from EADS' space arm Astrium.
Unlike Virgin Galactic customers, EADS says ZEHST would have a maximum acceleration of 1.2G, meaning passengers will not need any training in order to fly. “The acceleration on people is very low, so no specific equipment or training is needed”, Bottin said.
The plane will take off using a regular turbofan engine, before rocket boosters kick in to start a sharp ascent, sending it soaring above the atmosphere.
Ramjet engines, currently used in missiles, will then take the plane up to altitudes of 32 km as the plane cruises at speeds beyond Mach 4, or four times the speed of sound. After a gliding descent, the turbofans will reignite to enable landing.
“ZEHST has no novelty, it is all things that have been created before”, Bottin said, adding the company could have an unmanned demonstrator by 2020.
EADS Chief Louis Gallois warned it could be another 30-40 years before commercial flights are a reality. “We're not talking about a product that we will launch in the next few years. We have to see security, integration of different technologies, and how man reacts to it.”