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X-51A Waverider Sets New Speed Record

X-51A Waverider Sets New Speed Record

The X-51A Waverider scramjet goes the distance at Mach 5…

The U.S. Air Forces’ hypersonic X-51A unmanned scramjet aircraft broke a new world speed record after flying at Mach 5 for 200 seconds.

The X-51A was launched from the left wing of an Air Force Flight Test Center B-52 Stratofortress flying at a height of 50,000 feet over the Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center Sea Range, May 26th.

X-51A Waverider

X-51A Waverider

Once deployed, the X-51A’s Army Tactical Missile solid rocket booster accelerated the X-51 to about Mach 4.8 mach before it and a connecting interstage were jettisoned.

Although the launch and separation were normal, an anomaly in the 4 minute caused the craft to crash. Engineers are still examining the data to identify the cause of the problem.

Charlie Brink, an X-51A program manager with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, said:

“We are ecstatic to have accomplished most of our test points on the X-51A’s very first hypersonic mission,”

“We equate this leap in engine technology as equivalent to the post-World War II jump from propeller-driven aircraft to jet engines.”

The Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne-built engines were originally designed for the NASA’s X-43 – the aircraft that held the previous longest scramjet burn at 12 seconds – but were adapted for use in the X-51A after the program was scrapped in 2004.

Four X-51A cruisers have been built for the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency by industry partners Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne and Boeing. Air Force officials intend to fly the three remaining X-51A flight test vehicles this fall, Mr. Brink said:

“This first flight was the culmination of a six-year effort by a small, but very talented AFRL, DARPA and industry development team…

“Now we will go back and really scrutinize our data. No test is perfect, and I’m sure we will find anomalies that we will need to address before the next flight. But anyone will tell you that we learn just as much, if not more, when we encounter a glitch.”

Hypersonic flight, normally defined as beginning at Mach 5, five times speed of sound, presents unique technical challenges with heat and pressure, which make conventional turbine engines impractical. Program officials said producing thrust with a scramjet has been compared to lighting a match in a hurricane and keeping it burning.

Mr. Brink said he believes the X-51A program will provide knowledge required to develop the game changing technologies needed for future access to space and hypersonic weapon applications.

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