The hydrogen-powered device is a hybrid of a plane and a rocket, making air transport both more sustainable and faster.
Swiss company Destinus is not thinking small – although they are currently developing a hypersonic aircraft, these vehicles are only a means to an end, as the company ultimately wants to build the cleanest and fastest transport network in the world. We’re not there yet, but we’ve taken the first steps – the concept is ready and the first prototype has even passed its test.
Destinus’s plane is a sonorously named ‘hyperplane’, a mix of rocket and conventional aircraft – ultimately a hydrogen-powered vehicle travelling at hypersonic speeds. Even in its choice of route, the hyperplane straddles the two worlds: it uses the band between conventional flight paths and low-orbit satellites for its travel. If you break down the operation, it’s easier to understand what the Swiss-based company is up to: the hyperplane will take off from a so-called hyperport, which could essentially be any conventional airport that has been prepared to operate this aircraft – this preparation means two things: providing a hydrogen supply and a control centre for controlling unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
In the example on the company’s website, the delivery is from a European airport to Australia – which is generously promised to take just 2 hours compared to 24 hours for a conventional aircraft, and all with zero CO2 emissions. So first, the plane takes off using the breathing engine, just like any conventional aircraft, with the difference that once it reaches a certain altitude, the rocket engine kicks in – which allows the hyperplane to reach the mesosphere, an altitude of around 50 km. At this altitude, as shown in the figure below, the plane will already be ripping at hypersonic speeds, promised to be 11 times the speed of sound. Intercontinental aircraft traditionally use an altitude of 11 km and do not reach the speed of sound. Finally, on landing, the plane will switch back to the breathing engine and then enter local air traffic.
The mesosphere is a particular challenge – the machine would take 30 minutes to complete, and at such high speeds you need to ensure that the structure does not overheat. For this reason, the company has in principle already developed and patented a cooling system that converts the thermal energy generated by friction into propulsion.
What is certain is that Destinus is not dragging its feet, the first prototype, the Jungfrau, made its first test flight at an airport near Munich last November (you can see a video of it here), and went from design to construction to that test in just four months. The five-minute flight was used to test how the shape, designed for hypersonic flight, performs at low speeds during the critical phases of take-off and landing. The test was a success, and although the Jungfrau is the size of a car, the next version, which should be ready early this year, will be the size of a bus.
The engineering success has been followed by financial success, as the company has secured 26.8 million Swiss francs in investment money, so the next step is to expand the number of technicians. The company currently employs 50 engineers who have previously worked for Arianespace, Boeing, Airbus, Dassault, Rolls-Royce and others, but Destinus is aiming to double that number this year.