The Military's X-51 Waverider Finally Traveled Five Times The Speed Of Sound

Wikimedia CommonsAn unmanned X-51A Waverider test plane achieved an incredible speed of more than 3800 mph on May 1, reaching Mach 5.1 over the Pacific Ocean.

The X-51A traveled more than 230 nautical miles in roughly six minutes — making it the longest and most successful of four test flights.

“It was a full mission success,” Charlie Brink, X-51A program manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory Aerospace Systems Directorate, told Air Force news. “I believe all we have learned from the X-51A Waverider will serve as the bedrock for future hypersonics research and ultimately the practical application of hypersonic flight.”

The program had seen myriad issues before its successful fourth flight. The first test went well until an engine seal failed, and the second and third flights both resulted in devastating crashes from equipment failure.

The aircraft — a joint venture of the Air Force, NASA, DARPA, Boeing, and Pratt & Whitney — is powered by scramjet technology, which researchers hope could usher in a new (and much faster) era of flight.

Supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet, “forces combustion when airflow surpasses the speed of sound and hydrogen is injected into the flow, allowing for theoretical speeds of Mach 20,” reports BI defence editor Robert Johnson.

As Air Force writer Daryl Mayer puts it, the injection of hydrocarbon fuel mixed with air rushing through the chamber “is ignited in a process likened to lighting a match in a hurricane.”

After taking off from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. under the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress, the X-51A was released at an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet and achieved Mach 4.8 in just 26 seconds with a solid rocket booster.

After the booster separated, the scramjet engine lit and pushed it to Mach 5.1 at 60,000 feet. The plane then exhausted its 240-second fuel supply and crashed into the ocean as designed.

Researchers collected 370 seconds of data over the course of the test flight.

“This test proves the technology has matured to the point that it opens the door to practical applications,” Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works, said in a statement to Air Force Times.

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