The U.S. Air Force's experimental X-51A Waverider set a hypersonic flight record when it flew at Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound — for more than three minutes. The previous scramjet record was a mere 12 seconds.
The X-51A is an unmanned, experimental aircraft that's essentially one 26-foot-long scramjet engine that sucks in air at a supersonic velocity, mixes it with fuel, and then shoots it out the other end as thrust. After six years of development by DARPA, the Air Force Research Laboratory and Boeing the X-51A was launched from the underside of a B-52 Stratofortress yesterday morning over the Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Sea Range in Southern California.
As planned, the X-51A separated from the B-52 and then the solid rocket boosters accelerated the engine to around Mach 4.8. At this point the booster and support were jettisoned and the scramjet did its thing and accelerated to a speed above Mach 5, which is approximately 3,300 MPH, for more than three minutes. To put it another way: the X-51A traveled approximately 165 miles in three minutes. Previously, NASA managed a 12-second flight with their X-43 rocket.
"We are ecstatic to have accomplished most of our test points on the X-51A's very first hypersonic mission," said Charlie Brink, a X-51A program manager with the Air Force Research Laboratory. "We equate this leap in engine technology as equivalent to the post-World War II jump from propeller-driven aircraft to jet engines."
This is only the first test of the technology, which could have applications for both military an space exploration.