Profits Heading Our Way Faster Than the Speed of Sound
Researchers are one step closer to a spaceplane that could fly between New York and London in about one hour, more than twice as fast as the Concorde.
Previous advances in jet propulsion have been few and far between. The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird set the world record for an air-breathing manned aircraft in 1976. That’s when pilot Eldon Joersz zipped across the sky above Beale Air Force Base in California at 3,529 kilometers per hour.
Speedy commercial aircraft have been mostly restricted to the Concorde, the supersonic passenger turbojet built by a consortium of British and French aerospace firms. The Concorde was operational from 1976 through 2003, transporting the rich between New York and London in 3 hours and 15 minutes.
Last week, Reaction Engines, a British aerospace engineering firm, successfully tested a heat-exchanger system that should allow aircraft to travel at Mach 5, five times the speed of sound.
To put that in perspective, jets equipped with Reaction Engines heat exchangers would be capable of flying 50% faster than the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.
This breakthrough could change commercial flight in profound new ways.
Reaction Engines was founded in 1989 in the heyday of the Concorde era. Three engineers from Rolls-Royce — Alan Bond, Richard Varvill and John Scott-Scott — decided to take jet engine design in a radical new direction.
Traditional jet engines faced the limitation of the air passing through engines melting the parts. The Reaction breakthrough was a precooler, or heat exchanger, capable of cooling incoming air to minus 150 degrees Celsius in a 20th of a second.
Reaction called these new heat-exchanger-equipped engines SABRE, or Synthetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engines.
Development of the technology won the support of the British government, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the United States, the European Space Agency, BAE Systems (BAESY), Rolls-Royce (RLLCF) and the venture capital division of Boeing (BA).
There is good reason to be optimistic.
A SABRE-equipped aircraft would have the fuel efficiency of a traditional jet engine and the power of a rocket. More impressive is, according a corporate explainer video, a new generation of aircraft could reach speeds of Mach 5 in normal air-breathing mode, then seamlessly transition to a rocket for space travel.
In theory, aerospace companies would get one propulsion system for both conventional aircraft and spacecraft.
The cost savings for development would be enormous. It could also usher in a new class of aircraft, linking all parts of the globe.
Elon Musk, the chief executive at SpaceX, believes the advances his company is making with reusable rockets can transition to commercial travel. Musk sees a rocket service linking every major hub on Earth. Flights from London to New York, for example, would take only 29 minutes.
The catch is this technology is still in development, and both Reaction and SpaceX are private companies.
So, the better play for investors will be to look for aerospace suppliers and component partners like Heico (HEI).
This Hollywood, Fla.-based company designs, manufactures and sells aerospace, defense and electronic products. As others continue to push innovation in the skies, Heico and its contemporaries who build and replace aircraft parts stand to make major profits.
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Jon D. Markman