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It looks like a winged javelin and would zip along at twice the speed of sound, with the supersonic boom reduced to the tolerable rumble of a Boeing 747. It would go twice the distance of the Concorde, seat three times the passengers, and cut emissions by 75 percent.
Sound like science fiction? Japanese researchers say they’re ready to prove it’s not. The government-funded National Aeronautics Laboratory of Japan plans to launch an unmanned prototype of NEXST — short for National Experimental Supersonic Transport — in the Australian desert next month. The engine-less aircraft, a 10 percent scale model of the real thing, would ride piggyback on a rocket, then be hurtled forward at a speed of 1,522 mph. After a 14-minute test flight, it would release parachutes and land.
The July 11 test aims to determine the viability of the plane’s aerodynamic shape, which was developed through computer simulations seeking to cut the noise of supersonic flight in half. “What we’ll be looking at in next month’s experiment is if our design really has the sound-reducing effect we’ve achieved in simulations,” said NAL spokesman Toshiharu Okuda. Officials plan to conduct more tests with U.S.-built engines powering the NEXST prototype over the next two years. NAL doesn’t expect the jet to be ready for commercial flights until 2012. The program has its skeptics, who point out that Japan has developed almost nothing of interest in aviation since World War II.
“There’s a lack of experience and know-how, and in this field experience and know-how count for a lot,” said Hiromu Maeda, an aeronautics professor at Kyoto University. Maeda said the question is not so much if Japan can create a jet that would live up to its ambitious claims. Rather, he wondered whether such a plane could ever meet the stringent safety standards required of commercial flight. “Safety is the paramount consideration,” he said. “No matter how economical your plane is, it won’t do any good unless it’s absolutely safe.”
But that hasn’t prevented companies such as Boeing Co., which is developing its own supersonic aircraft called the Sonic Cruiser, from taking next month’s test seriously. “We’ve been anticipating this event closely,” said Wade Cornelius, Boeing’s vice president for global strategy. “I think their expectations hold merit. Our Japanese partners are on the leading edge of this technology.” Asked whether success in the Australian desert could lead to a partnership, Cornelius said: “It’s certainly possible. There certainly could be cooperation.”
If NAL succeeds, the jet could go a long way toward pushing supersonic commercial aviation beyond the Concorde — the favored trans-Atlantic commute of the rich and famous. The laboratory claims enhanced fuel efficiency and super-light design using composite materials would allow NEXST to seat 300 passengers, against Concorde’s 100, and give it a range of 7,457 miles — about twice that of the British-French supersonic jet.
It would also pollute less, emitting 75 percent less nitrogen oxide thanks to a special burner. Perhaps most importantly, NAL’s jet would be as quiet as subsonic passenger planes like the 747, allowing it to fly just about anywhere in the world. The Concorde, with its supersonic boom, is only allowed to land in New York, London and Paris. The laboratory declined to give a price tag for NEXST or reveal how much of its government funding it is allocating to the project. NAL’s total annual budget is about 23 billion yen ($185 million), and it is working on two other major projects.
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