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