Tuesday, the X-51A Waverider takes to the skies, 70,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean for a historical flight. The unmanned X-51A will deploy from the wings of a B-52 bomber and is expected to reach speeds of 3,600 mph for a total flight time of five minutes. When the X-51A reaches its max speed it will travel at Mach 6 at twice as long as any aircraft has travelled at that speed. Travelling at Mach 6, you could travel from Los Angeles to New York in about 46 minutes.
The X-51A is released from the wings of a B-52 (not one of these) and drops for about four seconds before the scramjet engine (no moveable parts) fire-up and travels for 30 seconds at a paltry Mach 4.5 before speeding up to its max speed of Mach 6. The X-51A is named the Waverider because it rides its own shockwaves to prevent drag. So cool!
The X-51A has made two flights prior to Tuesday’s test, with the first one reaching Mach 5 before the test was terminated, the second attempt ended after the hypersonic flight ended prematurely when the engine wasn’t receiving enough airflow.
Though the intended range is still awhile away, these milestones are necessary to for the engineering team to make its eventual goal. Robert A. Mercier, from the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio said “Since the Wright brothers, we have examined how to make aircraft better and faster. Hypersonic flight is one of those areas that is a potential frontier for aeronautics. I believe we’re standing in the door waiting to go into that arena.”
The project, financed by NASA and the Pentagon, and built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (engine) Boeing Advanced Network & Space Systems. The Waverider program costs approximately $140 million, the Pentagon currently funds six hypersonic programs totaling nearly $2 billion.
The Pentagon expects to use hypersonic technology to deploy vehicles (weapons) quicker. Using hypersonic speeds an attack could reach its target in less than 12 minutes, according to Richard Hallion a former Air Force senior advisor.
Currently, the only weapon in the US military’s arsenal that can deliver weapons across long distances is the nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile system. The only other weapons that come close to long distance targets are cruise missiles and long distance bomber planes that take up to a few hours to reach its intended destination.
When asked for specifics on why the military needs to deploy missiles more quickly, a military official commented on a failed attempt to kill Osama bin Laden in 1998, where it took the naval vessel-launched cruise missiles 80 minutes to reach the physical target. In a lot of these situations, the intended target has moved on.
For a less violent and more practical use, this technology is one day hoped to facilitate long distance commercial travel. Ever since the Airbus Concorde was sent to airplane retirement, a competitor has yet to that match the speed and range of the fabled jet.
If this test fails like previous flights, the team has one more flight scheduled after Tuesday’s attempt to work out any kinks. I just really hope this just gets us closer for warp drive.