Science: Fast & Hot

Supersonic aircraft now on the drawing boards will soon be moving at more than 1,500 m.p.h. At such high speed, say aeronautical engineers, friction between air and airplane will build a wall of heat—a "thermal barrier"—that will grow worse as planes fly faster. Their metal may soften like the wax in the wings of Icarus when he flew too near the sun.

Only a few years ago, designers thought that at the speed of sound, turbulent shock waves would pound a plane to bits. But when jets pushed aircraft up to the sonic barrier, it turned out to be nothing worse than...

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