Surfing Faster Than Sound

SCIENTISTS AT NASA AND Stanford University hope to bring the cost of supersonic flight down to earth. But their design--a single flying wing--seems otherworldly. Imagine a giant, 400-foot surfboard. Then, picture it flying sideways.

At takeoff, the wing's broad side would face into the direction of flight. As the wing approached supersonic speed it would turn at an oblique angle, which would increase with acceleration. To stabilize the oddly shaped wing, a computer would make continuous adjustments to a series of wing flaps. Passengers would ride in the center of the wing's forward edge. Fuel would be stored in other parts of the wing for the engines hanging below.

The aircraft's peculiar looks may pay off. Improved aerodynamics allow the wing to operate at a cost that is estimated to be only 20% higher than that of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet; yet the wing would arrive at its destination in half the time. In addition, the wing's liftoff power eliminates the need for the noisy afterburner jets that are now being used on supersonic commercial aircraft.

So far, the NASA-Stanford team has tested a 20-foot wing controlled by an Apple Macintosh 2. The model reached only 65 mph, but a full-scale version could zip along at Mach 2, about 1,200 mph.

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