$300 million hypersonic missile program loses control, crashes after 15 seconds in latest test
By End the Lie
The United States Air Force’s X-51A WaveRider hypersonic missile (or jet, depending on who/what you read) spun out of control and then crashed into the ocean after a flight lasting only 15 seconds, marking the third time that the project has fallen far short of the mark.
The exact amount of money poured into this program is unknown, with estimates ranging from $250-300 million. Regardless, this is yet another program into which vast quantities of cash (which we don’t even have) is being poured while, if past precedent is any indication, it very well might end up being scrapped like the multi-billion dollar Airborne Laser program or the spy blimp project.
The X-51A WaveRider is manufactured by Boeing and was first tested in free-flight on May 26, 2010 when it achieved the longest duration flight at speeds above Mach 5, which is around 3,806 miles per hour.
The X-51A is, technically speaking, an “unmanned scramjet demonstration aircraft” and dubbed WaveRider due to its ability to leverage its own shockwaves to give itself lift. However, others such as Danger Room’s Robert Beckhusen and Reuters refer to it as an “experimental Mach 5 missile” and a “cruise missile.”
It is not just the U.S. Air Force – specifically the United States Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) – which is involved in the WaveRider project, indeed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and private sector entities such as Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.
Potentially the most astounding aspect of the project is the mind-bending speeds at which the X-51A can travel. Indeed, it can travel so fast that it could make a flight from London to New York in one hour or less, compared to the record 2 hours and 52 minutes of the Concorde and 7-8 hours on a Boeing 747.
The WaveRider also flies at a significantly higher cruising altitude – a whopping 70,000 feet – than typical commercial jets which fly at 31,000 feet and the Concorde which operates at 58,000 feet.
The project hit its latest major stumbling block when, according to a tweet posted by Wired’s Danger Room on August 15, 2012 at 6:35 AM, “a fin problem caused a loss of control [before] the engine could kick in.”
At first this report was unconfirmed but later the Air Force confirmed the account provided by Danger Room as well as “information provided by an insider familiar with the test, who said a problem with a missile’s fin caused a loss of control before the engine could kick in.”
The scramjet engine in the X-51A was supposed to propel it at hypersonic speeds for 300 seconds but after it successfully detached from the B-52 it was carried on and after it fired its rocket booster it only lasted 15 seconds before losing control.
According to John Haire, a spokesman for the 412th test wing at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the test began between 10 AM and 11 AM local time at which point it was launched off of a B-52 bomber.
The information from Haire, which was published by the British Telegraph, was interestingly completely devoid of any mention of the broken fin and failed test.
More details on the failure came later from the X-51A program manager, Charlie Brink.
According to the Associated Press, Brink stated, “It is unfortunate that a problem with this subsystem caused a termination before we could light the Scramjet engine. All our data showed we had created the right conditions for engine ignition and we were very hopeful to meet our test objectives.”
“All our data showed we had created the right conditions for engine ignition and we were very hopeful to meet our test objectives,” said Brink.
Now officials with the X-51A program are attempting to evaluate the precise cause of the failure and crash and, according to the Associated Press, “Only one of the four X-51A vehicles remain, and officials have not decided when or if that vehicle will fly at this time, the statement said.”
However, this seems to be contradicted by Beckhusen who wrote, “The Air Force is currently building a fourth missile, but is short on funds for testing. And if tests keep getting worse, there may not be enough interest for another round.”
It appears that the implications of this failure might be more significant than one would think, with Danger Room reporting that it “also has serious implications for the military’s ‘prompt global strike’ mission, which aims to use missiles with engines capable of hypersonic flight to wallop targets hundreds — even thousands — of miles away and do so within minutes.”
Yet this might not be the end of the X-51A, as it could be eventually transitioned into a missile known as a “High Speed Strike Weapon,” which is just one of many of the U.S. military’s hypersonic endeavors.
Currently DARPA is also researching a hypersonic glider called the Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) – which recently crashed into the Pacific Ocean as well during a test – capable of being launched into near-space before coming back to Earth at a shocking Mach 20.
In other words, these failures aren’t slowing down the American military machine one bit in their quest to obtain hypersonic capabilities. The unfortunate reality is that we don’t have a cent to continue to put towards these programs and yet that fact is pushed aside as if it were of no consequence, which is obviously a short-sighted and potentially disastrous way to approach our current problem as a nation.
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