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Experimental aircraft speeds more than five times the speed of sound

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
May 5th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A lightning-quick experimental aircraft, an unmanned X-51A WaveRider made history when it sped more than 3,000 miles per hour above the Pacific Ocean. The successful mission will hopefully re-ignite a decades-long effort to develop a vehicle that could travel faster than a speeding bullet.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Resembling a shark-nosed missile, the craft was launched midair last week off the coast near Point Mugu. The WaveRider sped westward for 240 seconds, reaching Mach 5.1, or more than five times the speed of sound, before plunging into the ocean.

The X-51A lifted off from Edwards Air Force Base, slung under the wing of a B-52 bomber. At about 50,000 feet, it was released like a bomb and engaged a solid rocket booster that accelerated it to Mach 4.8 in about 26 seconds. After separating from the booster, the X-51A scramjet engine then lit and accelerated to Mach 5.1 at 60,000 feet.

"It was a full mission success," Charlie Brink, X-51A program manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory Aerospace Systems Directorate, said in a statement. "I believe all we have learned from the X-51A WaveRider will serve as the bedrock for future hyper-sonics research and ultimately the practical application of hypersonic flight."

Built and tested in Southern California, the X-51A was powered by an air-breathing engine with virtually no moving parts. Flying longer than any other aircraft of its kind, the craft traveled more than 264 miles in little more than six minutes. Theoretically, a passenger aircraft traveling at that speed could fly from Los Angeles to New York in less than an hour.

Hypersonic flight refers to going five times the speed of sound or more. The Air Force has toyed with the notion of hypersonic technology since the 1960s. The theoretical technology can propel vehicles at speeds that cannot be achieved from traditional turbine-powered jet engines.

Previous attempts produced very limited results.

There are no plans to recover parts of the craft after it fell, as planned, into the Pacific Ocean. While designed to reach Mach 6, engineers said they were happy because the program objective was to prove the viability of air-breathing, high-speed scramjet propulsion.

The experiment was the last of four tests X-51A vehicles originally conceived when the $300 million technology demonstration program began in 2004. None of the other flights went the distance.

Aerospace engineers maintain that harnessing technology capable of sustaining hypersonic speeds is crucial to the next generation of missiles, military aircraft, spacecraft - and even passenger planes.

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