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X-51A Waverider breaks supersonic flight record


May 27, 2010

U.S. Air Force graphic of the record breaking	X-51A Waverider

U.S. Air Force graphic of the record breaking X-51A Waverider

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Boeing's X-51 WaveRider has made aviation history by completing the longest ever supersonic* combustion ramjet-powered flight. The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flew for almost three and a half minutes in the skies off the southern California coast on Wednesday, reaching an altitude of about 70,000 feet and hitting hypersonic (Mach 5) speeds.

The X-51 WaveRider scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) is being developed for the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) by Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

The goal of the program is to create a free-flying, scramjet-powered vehicle capable of operating continuously on jet fuel and achieving continuous hypersonic speeds - a challenge which program officials compare to "lighting a match in a hurricane and keeping it burning."

During its first autonomous flight, the X-51 was launched at 50,000 feet from under the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress before being accelerated to Mach 4.8 using a solid rocket booster from a U.S. Army tactical missile. The rocket then jettisoned and aircraft then flew under the power of its powered by its Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne scramjet motor for around 200 seconds, burning a mix of ethylene and JP-7 jet fuel.

The flight is considered the first use of a practical hydrocarbon fueled scramjet in flight and smashes the previous record for a scramjet burn in a flight test was 12 seconds in a NASA X-43, which has achieved speeds speeds of Mach 9.8, or 7,000 mph.

"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 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. "We equate this leap in engine technology as equivalent to the post-World War II jump from propeller-driven aircraft to jet engines."

While the flight is being hailed as a success, the terabytes of telemetry data transmitted by the X-51A to both ground systems and an airborne U.S. Navy P-3 Orion is yet to be analyzed.

"This is a new world record and sets the foundation for several hypersonic applications, including access to space, reconnaissance, strike, global reach and commercial transportation," said Joe Vogel, Boeing director of Hypersonics and X-51A program manager.

The Air Force officials plans to fly the three remaining X-51A flight test vehicles this year on virtually identical flight profiles.

* Supersonic speeds are defined as being above the speed of sound (Mach 1).

Via Boeing and USAF.

About the Author
Noel McKeegan After a misspent youth at law school, Noel began to dabble in tech research, writing and things with wheels that go fast. This bus dropped him at the door of a freshly sprouted Gizmag.com in 2002. He has been Gizmag's Editor-in-Chief since 2007. All articles by Noel McKeegan

it is times like this when i wish i could grow up to be a robot. who else will be able to fly these beauties?


And the post-burn destination of yesterday\'s valiant X-51A? A watery grave or a sandy groove on the desert floor? Log-in name notwithstanding, I am an aviation enthusiast!

John Henry

They obviously have forgot history. In about 1958, the Airforce version of the unmanned intercontinental missile was the Navahoe. It was a ramjet, launched by a rocket booster to about 150,000 feet. It then dove back into the atmosphere at about mach 2, ignited and flew at about mach 2 at 50,000 ft for 5,000-10,000 miles. All tests failed untill the last one after the program was canceled. It was launched just to get rid of it. It worked and flew over 5,000 miles.


There was also a nuclear ramjet that actually worked but never flew for obvious reasons.



Give me ICBM at 7320 m/s any day.

Vladimir Popov

So, they managed to fly fast on bad, polluting fuel. What\'s the deal, and what\'s wrong with hydrogen powered rockets, which exhausts nothing but water vapor?

Jan Klok
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