NASA has a new ex­per­i­men­tal plane and it’s hop­ing you won’t no­tice any noise

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Contents - BY JAY BEN­NETT

INthe 1960s, the US Air Force was test­ing supersonic planes over Ok­la­homa City. Res­i­dents com­plained of bro­ken win­dows and dishes fall­ing from cup­boards, the re­sult of sonic booms up above when the jets went past 1 235 km/ h, out­pac­ing the noise from their en­gines and air re­sis­tance. The re­lated shock waves co­a­lesced into pres­sure that would re­lease like bi­b­li­cal thun­der, dam­ag­ing houses thou­sands of feet be­low. That side ef­fect is why, even 71 years af­ter Chuck Yea­ger’s first supersonic flight, you have to be in the mil­i­tary if you want to fly faster than the speed of sound over land. (That’s also why the Con­corde flew supersonic only over the ocean.)

But Lock­heed Martin has an idea. Its en­gi­neers have de­signed the LowBoom Flight Demon­stra­tor (LBFD), a plane with aero­dy­namic tech­nol­ogy that al­lows it to fly be­yond the speed of sound with­out a typ­i­cal sonic boom. Lock­heed en­gi­neers started with a long, Con­corde-like body and delta wing, per­fect for high-speed, longdis­tance travel. Then they added on ca­nards, ex­tra wings to­ward the front, and a small T-tail at the rear. At speed, these ex­tra fea­tures in­ter­rupt the pres­sure build-up that causes a sonic boom. Ac­cord­ing to Lock­heed, this will re­duce the typ­i­cal 105-deci­bel thun­der­clap to a 75-per­ceived-lev­eldeci­bel rum­ble, barely audi­ble from the ground.

NASA has given the com­pany a con­tract worth $247.5 mil­lion to build the LBFD, with first take- off sched­uled for sum­mer 2021. Af­ter those first sur­vey flights, pi­lots will take the LBFD up to Mach 1.4 at 55,000 feet over pop­u­lated ar­eas of the United States. NASA will then can­vass the peo­ple liv­ing be­low to find out whether the sonic booms were tol­er­a­ble. If suc­cess­ful, the LBFD’S find­ings will help dic­tate the fu­ture of manned flight.

Richard Feyn­man, Ju­lian Sch­winger and Sin-itiro Tomon­aga won the No­bel Prize in Physics ‘ for their fun­da­men­tal work in quan­tum elec­tro­dy­nam­ics, with deep­plough­ing con­se­quences for the physics of el­e­men­tary par­ti­cles’ in 1965. And now, decades of re­search later, quan­tum com­put­ers have fi­nally ar­rived to solve prob­lems clas­sic com­put­ers never could.

Fi­nally, we’re step­ping out­side the re­search lab with an ex­cit­ing new way of com­put­ing to solve prob­lems once con­sid­ered un­solv­able. Kind of. There are many prob­lems we can’t solve to­day, which is why ex­plor­ing fun­da­men­tally new ways of do­ing com­pu­ta­tion may open up new doors.

The first of these new ma­chines you’ll prob­a­bly en­counter is IBM Q, de­scribed as ‘an in­dus­try-first ini­tia­tive to build com­mer­cially avail­able univer­sal quan­tum com­put­ers for busi­ness and sci­ence’. IBM be­lieves that while quan­tum com­put­ing may be a re­searcher’s play­ground right now, in five years’ time, it could be­come part of the main­stream.

Un­like a clas­si­cal com­puter, in which bi­nary dig­its, or ‘ bits,’ can hold only one value (a ‘1’ or a ‘0’) at a time, quan­tum com­put­ers are made up of quan­tum bits, or ‘qubits,’ which have the po­ten­tial to hold mul­ti­ple val­ues si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

What’s more is that ev­ery quan­tum com­puter’s power scales with its qubits – so the chal­lenge is re­ally in build­ing enough qubits to reach crit­i­cal mass of com­pu­ta­tional power, and then keep­ing them in a state of equi­lib­rium, where they’re work­ing to­gether and their power can be har­nessed.

‘A quan­tum com­puter is not your typ­i­cal desk­top com­puter or server,’ ex­plains Arvind Kr­ishna, di­rec­tor of re­search at IBM. ‘Quan­tum states are in­her­ently frag­ile … and any­thing can in­ter­fere with their func­tion­ing – heat, noise, elec­tro-mag­netic in­ter­fer­ence. For that rea­son, we keep the chip in­side a re­frig­er­a­tor colder than outer space.’

Quan­tum com­put­ing may be a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent com­put­ing paradigm, but IBM is not alone in its quest to bring the quan­tum dream to re­al­ity. Mi­crosoft an­nounced a new quan­tum- com­put­ing pro­gram­ming lan­guage and com­put­ing sim­u­la­tor that was de­signed specif­i­cally for this field.

In­tel is also work­ing to cre­ate qubit pro­ces­sors. At CES 2018, In­tel un­veiled a 49-qubit su­per-con­duct­ing quan­tum test chip code-named ‘ Tan­gle Lake’.

‘In the quest to de­liver a com­mer­cially vi­able quan­tum- com­put­ing sys­tem, it’s any­one’s game,’ said Mike May­berry, the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of In­tel Labs. ‘ We ex­pect it will be five to seven years be­fore the in­dus­try gets to tack­ling en­gi­neer­ings cale prob­lems, and it will likely re­quire one mil­lion or more qubits to achieve com­mer­cial rel­e­vance.’

From the world of sci­ence-fic­tion to see­ing it in re­al­ity – this is only the be­gin­ning of the road to prac­ti­cal quan­tum com­put­ing.

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