Over Atlantic in an hour? Pentagon to test hypersonic X-51A WaveRider aircraft (PHOTOS, VIDEO)
The Pentagon knows that, sometimes, time really is of the essence. That’s why they are throwing their weight behind a new aircraft — one capable of traveling five times the speed of sound for minutes on end — scheduled for testing this week.
UPDATE: The test turned out to be a complete failure. Read our exclusive coverage here.
The X-51A WaveRider, an unmanned experimental aircraft being financed by both the US Department of Defense and NASA, will be tested over the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday. If all goes as planned, a remote team of pilots will be able to send the space-age aircraft soaring through the sky at Mach 6 — or roughly 3,600 miles per hour—for just around five full minutes. The Los Angeles Times reports that such a speed for that amount of time would be twice as long as any other hypersonic aircraft has sustained before, though, and if all goes as planned the Pentagon might be able to soon usher supplies from coast-to-coast, all in under an hour.
“Attaining sustained hypersonic flight is like going from propeller-driven aircraft to jet aircraft,” Robert A. Mercier, deputy for technology in the high speed systems division at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio, tells the Times. “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.”
Graphic shows the X-51A Waverider as it is set to demonstrate hypersonic flight (AFP Photo / US Air Force)
In addition to being able to fly from New York to London on roughly an hour, the WaveRider is reportedly being considered for an array of other options. According to the Times report, aerospace engineers predict that a successful test of the latest hypersonic project will pave the way to moving “missiles, military aircraft, spacecraft — and even passenger planes” at several times the speed of sound.
The Pentagon will push that envelop on Tuesday after it loads a WaveRide under the wing of a B-52 bomber, which it then will send 50,000 feet over the ocean near Point Mugu. Once they are ready to release the craft, the WaveRider will be released and will be, hopefully, sent into the sky at around five times the speed of sound.
That is, of course, assuming that this test mission is a successful. The last time the WaveRider managed to make it in the air long enough to meet its researchers’ expectation, the craft only made it to 143 seconds before crashing into the ocean.
graphic shows The X-51A Waverider, under the wing of a B-52 Stratobomber set to demonstrate hypersonic flight (AFP Photo / US Air Force)
Separately, the Pentagon’s state-of-the-art lab, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has recently announced plans to put another unmanned hypersonic vehicle into the sky at a speed of Mach 20 — or around 13,000 miles per hour (20,900 kph). Upon testing that craft out last year though, the so-called “X-plane” also ended up in the ocean, although that crash landing wasn’t what the DARPA team had hoped for.
Following that failed mission, DARPA director Regina Dugan issued a statement saying that data from that attempt will give the Pentagon “a better understanding of overall system capability and flight dynamics — how far it can fly with more accuracy.”