Two hours to Tokyo

College Park aerospace firm straps in for hypersonic flight

Friday, Jan. 5, 2007

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Rendering courtesy of Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute
Astrox Corp. of College Park is developing a hypersonic plane designed to fly halfway around the world in two hours.

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Photo courtesy of Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute
Hypersonic air travel will mean ‘‘a huge jump for our economy and civilization in general for the whole world,” says Ajay Kothari, president of Astrox.

One day in the not-too-distant future, people will have breakfast in Baltimore and lunch in Tokyo, says Ajay Kothari.

Two-hour flights from the East Coast to Japan, Australia or Korea, affording passengers a space shuttle-like view of Earth, could become a reality within eight years ‘‘if the whole country wakes up” to the promise of hypersonic aircraft, says Kothari, founder and president of Astrox Corp. of College Park.

Such planes would fly above the Earth’s atmosphere at about 17,500 mph — roughly 35 times faster than commercial jets.

Last week, Astrox cleared an important hurdle toward building a prototype of its hypersonic plane when University of Maryland engineers solved a supersonic fuel combustion puzzle while conducting wind tunnel experiments on a model.

The company’s project has attracted more than $5 million in federal grants, plus $97,500 from the Maryland Industrial Partnerships program.

Small company, big dreams

Privately held Astrox, a minority-owned business with eight employees, was founded by Kothari, an immigrant from India, in 1987. He was an assistant research engineer at the University of Maryland Department of Aerospace Engineering from 1982 to 1990.

The company’s revenues come solely from government grants and contracts, Kothari said.

Astrox is a decidedly small fish in suburban Maryland’s large pond of aerospace giants.

Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, which also provides research and development services for the federal government, has 140,000 employees and reported revenues of $37.2 billion for 2005. Rockville aerospace company BAE Systems Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of global BAE Systems of the United Kingdom, employs 45,000 with sales of $10 billion.

Northrop Grumman Corp., which also has significant R&D sites in Maryland, employs 123,600, with revenues of $30.45 billion in 2005.

Better than government version?

Federal research agencies are developing similar hypersonic aircraft, missile and spacecraft technologies to the systems Astrox is working on. But Astrox’s patented funnel-shape design for a hypersonic vehicle engine may work better than government versions, by burning fuel more efficiently and cooling more effectively, according to the university tests.

‘‘NASA has a prototype to test at Mach 7 to 9” — seven to nine times the speed of sound — ‘‘but Astrox wanted to make combustion more efficient” on such planes, said Kenneth Yu, associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland’s Clark School of Engineering. ‘‘We made their conceptual engine more feasible.”

The 20 to 50 passengers who would fly on an Astrox plane traveling at speeds of up to Mach 25 would not be taking any more of a safety risk than were passengers on the first modern jets, Yu said.

Hypersonic air travel will mean ‘‘a huge jump for our economy and civilization in general for the whole world,” Kothari said.

The technology can help the United States ‘‘maintain our edge in aerospace and military use in the long term if we had something like this,” he said. ‘‘Imagine how it could transform space transportation.”

‘Very much theoretical’

One aerospace analyst, Paul H. Nisbet of JSA Research Inc., is leery of the prospect of flying that fast.

‘‘I can’t even fathom that at all,” Nisbet said. ‘‘It seems to me there could be real problems with passengers at very high rates.”

Nisbet thinks the next decade will be ‘‘very good” for the aerospace and defense industries — but not yet for hypersonic planes.

‘‘I don’t expect we will see anything like that for 20 or 30 years,” he said. ‘‘It is very much theoretical. I doubt in the next couple of years we will be at much over Mach 7.”

That may be the case because ‘‘the government needs to put more money into this,” Kothari said. Building the first commercial hypersonic plane could indeed take more than 20 years without additional federal funding, he said.

Kothari, 50, plans to be aboard the first commercial flight. He hopes that happens when he is 58, not 78.

‘‘Of course I will be scared, but I will want to go,” he said. ‘‘Just like when everyone was afraid of the first supersonic plane, now millions of people fly. I can imagine hundreds of thousands of people a year going into orbit on it just for fun.”

More funding on the horizon

Kothari’s frustrations over money for hypersonic research and development maybe short-lived.

Research on the nuts and bolts of hypersonic technology has been revived at NASA, after an 18-month hiatus, said NASA spokeswoman Kathy Barstorff. Other projects are under way in the Air Force, the Navy and the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in Arlington, Va.

While the prototypes will be tested using either booster rockets, vertical launches or launches from airplanes, the defense agency ultimately wants to make vehicles that are reusable and take off and land on their own, said Jan Walker, an agency spokeswoman.

Lisa Porter, new associate administrator for NASA’s aeronautics division, has revived the agency’s Hyper-X Program under the new name Hypersonic Project, in cooperation with the Air Force at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va.

During a seven-year, $230 million Hyper-X Program that ended in 2004, NASA gathered data for future hypersonic vehicles by setting speed records with its X-43A scramjet — a 12-foot-long, unmanned supersonic-combustion ramjet. The plane was launched from a conventional aircraft. The X-43A achieved Mach 7 and 10 — about 5,000 and 7,000 mph — off the California coast, demonstrating that an advanced air-breathing jet engine, needed for the hypersonic planes, could power an aircraft nearly 10 times the speed of sound, according to agency information.

The challenge for a plane with such massive and high-speed air intake, Kothari said, is injecting fuel into the air efficiently as it travels quickly through the engine.

His funnel-shaped intake, called an inward turning design, is the answer, he said.

In the university’s supersonic wind tunnel, the research team tested its new fuel combustor at Mach 2, which could ‘‘translate” into Mach 6 in a plane, said Ashwani K. Gupta, Yu’s engineering colleague at the Clark School.

Kothari said that prior to the university tests he took his design to the Air Force and NASA.

‘‘They did not want to hear about it,” he said. ‘‘Now they are listening.”

Next, Astrox plans to test the engine design in a small model plane. Kothari hopes to conduct such tests at NASA’s location in Wallop’s Island, Va.

Beyond the SST

Hypersonic travel promises to bring the next generation of speedy planes after the supersonic transport or SST.

The only remaining commercial SST, the much-ballyhooed but ultimately disappointing British Concorde, was taken out of service in October 2003.

The Concorde, capable of traveling at nearly Mach 2, made aviation news for more than 30 years. It was developed in a joint effort by the British and French. However, according to the NASA Web site, the Concorde was expensive to operate and had performance and mechanical problems. The Soviet Union’s SST, called TU-144, was discontinued after only 102 passenger flights.

But not all in the aerospace industry have given up on supersonic planes.

Lockheed Martin recently signed an agreement with a consortium called Supersonic Aerospace International in Nevada to help design a small supersonic plane.

‘‘We are exploring technologies to one day provide new supersonic land-based planes,” spokesman Tom Greer said.