Monday, October 08, 2012

Revisiting Air Force's flying saucer idea

Way back in the 1950s, the USAF looked at jet-powered saucers and initially thought they might work. Project 1794, though, was a complete fizzle: it produced nothing but a prototype called the AvroCar that was just an inefficient hovercraft.  This story is being trumpeted as news, as here, but in fact it's been known since the early 60s at least. All that is new is declassification of a specific document. The Air Force's idea never went anywhere for the same reasons no one (Nazis included) ever made a flying saucer work: it's a terrible shape to control in the atmosphere, offering no advantage over conventional aircraft.  While a saucer would work fine in space, where shape doesn't matter, that's no reason to build one.  An interesting sidelight, though, is that a round, nearly flat shape works nicely for aerobraking in the transition to planetary atmospheres. That's why Apollo capsules were such broad cones and the Mars orbiter Curiosity looked very much like a flying saucer to an observer on Mars.

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