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Go from New York City to London in an hour? Hypersonic engine may make it possible

Go from New York City to London in an hour? Hypersonic engine may make it possible
Reaction Engines

When you think about it, it's pretty cool how fast we can get to other places around the world. So hey, here's a big shout-out to all those rocket scientists and test pilots who made it possible so many decades ago.

Yeah, decades ago. The big breakthroughs in jet engines happened over the second half of the 20th century, and quite a few decades have passed since we've seen any major upgrades. What gives?

There's been some science hangups that have been keeping engines from getting faster, but maybe not for much longer. A group of scientists just successfully completed an engine test that, if applied to an actual passenger jet, could make the trip from New York City to London take under an hour.

Jet travel then and now

Jet air travel is nothing new, not by any stretch of the imagination. Let's look at the highlights, so get ready for a brief history lesson.

Work on jet engines really got going in the late 1930s. About a decade later in 1947, test pilot Chuck Yeager achieved supersonic speed and broke the sound barrier over California. He became the fastest man alive when he passed Mach 1, or about 750 miles per hour.

Jets became common throughout the world, both for military and commercial flights. Then, the next big milestone came in 1976 with the debut of the Concorde.

Introduced into Great Britain and France passenger service, it had a cruising speed of about 1,350 miles per hour, or twice the speed of sound. It could make the trip from London to New York in about 3-and-a-half hours. Not too shabby.

Long story short, the planes got old, and maintenance costs kept rising while passenger numbers dwindled. The Concorde, along with commercial supersonic flights, ended in 2003.

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Forget supersonic travel, it's time for hypersonic

Just about everyone wants to get to their destination faster, and there have been a few pushes over the past few years to bring back supersonic passenger service. But forget supersonic, the future is about hypersonic speed.

Researchers at Reaction Engines in the United Kingdom have been working on new technology to get over the big hurdle that's been keeping traditional jet engines from getting any faster than Mach 3. And that's the fact that a lot of jet engines have the pesky habit of melting once they hit 2,500 miles per hour. You know, nothing major.

For their experimental Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE), they managed to build a pre-cooler that simulated the speed of Mach 3.3, or just over 2,500 miles per hour - and hey, nothing melted! Take a look at a video about their SABRE technology:

What does it all mean? Reaction Engines said their SABRE engines are capable of Mach 5.4 (4,143 mph) in air-breathing mode. And that means you could get from New York to London in about 50 minutes or so. How cool would it be to cross the Atlantic faster than it takes you to get through a TSA checkpoint?

Future of the SABRE engine

The test was conducted at a facility in Colorado, and they're planning more. But their work isn't just about getting passengers from point A to point B on Earth. They've got big plans for space, too.

I mentioned that the SABRE could potentially hit Mach 5.4 in air-breathing mode. Put it in rocket mode for space flight, and you're looking at Mach 25. That's over 19,000 miles per hour.

Now for the bad news: Testing and development can take a long time. A really long time.

Although this is a promising breakthrough that could one day mean a quick trip across the pond, it won't be happening anytime soon. Even Reaction Engines says this technology is decades away from use in passenger jets.

So if you were hoping to get to London in the time it takes you to watch one episode of "Game of Thrones," it's just not happening. But that's good news if you're behind, because you'll be able to watch almost an entire season during your seven-hour flight. There's always a silver lining, so sit back and enjoy the ride.

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