Move aside Elon Musk – aerospace giant Boeing plans to beat SpaceX by being the first to take humans safely to Mars using hypersonic technology, which it believes will also go a long way towards developing a viable space tourism industry.
Musk made the news recently by reiterating his plans to send humans to Mars using a new interplanetary transport system at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, at the end of September. He plans to build several spaceships that could take 100 passengers at a time to Mars, with each ticket costing $200,000 (£157,280), until the planet is inhabited by 1 million people.
But not so fast. Boeing helped the US to reach the Moon before the Soviet Union in 1969, and it has no intention of letting SpaceX beat it this time either.
"I'm convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket," Boeing's chief executive Dennis Muilenburg told the audience at the Atlantic's What's Next? Conference in Chicago on Wednesday 4 October, according to Bloomberg.
Boeing is heavily focusing on developing hypersonic jets because it envisions a thriving commercial space tourism industry whereby hypersonic aircraft are able to not only carry passengers across continents in just two hours, but also able take passengers to space hotels and space factories orbiting around the Earth very quickly as well.
How does hypersonic technology work?
Today, hypersonic aircraft are mostly still just a concept. Hypersonic refers to planes that travel at over 3,840mph, which is five times the speed of sound (Mach 5), and at the moment, these aircraft are mostly tested by the military in the US, China and Russia, to varying degrees of success.
In order to achieve such speeds – beyond twice that of the Concorde – engineers have been developing supersonic combustion ramjet engine (Scramjet) technology since the 1950s to change the way planes function.
The essential concept remains the same over 60 years on – if you want planes to go faster, they have to be a lot lighter. And the best way to get them to be lighter is by using rocket engines that can take the oxygen needed to create combustion from the atmosphere around and through the vehicle as it flies, rather than having to carry a tank on board.
Nasa, Airbus, Lockheed Martin, the US Air Force, the Pentagon, Australian military and Germany's space agency are the major players who are keen to realise hypersonic technology by the mid-2020s for use in super-fast fighter jets, missiles and commercial aircraft, but the technology will need to be both stable and a lot cheaper to produce, before this can happen on a big scale.
"[The] business model [for hypersonic] isn't closed yet. At some point it will," he said. "The future of innovation has to include not only the technology, but economic viability."
Most recently, Russia announced that it is developing a hypersonic stealth bomber that can launch nuclear bombs from space (although this is still also just a concept), while British aerospace manufacturer Reaction Engines recently received £50m in funding from the UK space agency to develop the Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (Sabre).