Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Right Stuff

NASA set an impressive new air speed record today:

LOS ANGELES (AP) - A tiny unmanned NASA "scramjet" soared above the Pacific Ocean Tuesday at nearly 10 times the speed of sound, or almost 7,000 mph, in a successful demonstration of a radical new engine technology.

The 12-foot-long X-43A supersonic combustion ramjet reached about Mach 9.7, said Leslie Williams, a spokeswoman at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.

The exotic aircraft was designed to fly under its own power for about 10 seconds after separating from a booster rocket at 110,000 feet, then glide to a splash landing.

Details of the craft's exact performance were to be announced later from Dryden, but mission officials were jubilant immediately after the brief flight.

"Once again we made aviation history. We did that in March when we went seven times the speed of sound and now we've done it right around 10 times the speed of sound," said Vince Rausch, Hyper-X program manager from NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia.

The X-43A, mounted on a Pegasus rocket used to boost it to flight speed, was carried under the wing of a B-52 aircraft and released at an altitude of 40,000 feet over a test range off the Southern California coast. The rocket motor then fired for a 90-second ascent.

Like its predecessors, the X-43A will not be recovered from the ocean.

The flight was the last in a $230 million-plus effort to test technology most likely to be initially used in military aircraft, such as a bomber that could reach any target on Earth within two hours of takeoff from the United States, or to power missiles.

Scramjets may also provide an alternative to rockets for space launches.

Unlike conventional jet engines which use rotating fan blades to compress air for combustion, the X-43A has no rotating engine parts. Instead it uses the underside of the aircraft's forebody to "scoop" up and compress air for mixing with hydrogen fuel.

Both the technology and the record are impressive. Scramjet technology, when refined, could revolutionize the aerospace industry. However, one aspect of this record-setting flight does leave me a bit saddened. The X-43A, for all it's glorious speed, is an unmanned jet. Something just doesn't feel right to me about setting a speed record in an airplane without a human being at the stick. Call me old-fashioned.

In case you're interested, the air speed record for a manned jet-powered aircraft is still held after 28 years by one of the most beautiful aircraft ever built, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird:

On July 28, 1976, an SR-71A flew at a speed of 2,193 mph, or Mach 3.3. That official record for a manned jet-powered flight still stands, although there are rumours that the SR-71 surpassed that mark on unofficial occasions. What is so remarkable is that the SR-71A set this record after entering service in 1966! The SR-71A's first flight was two years before that, in 1964, and its immediate predecessor, the A-12 first flew in 1962. It is a remarkable testament to the engineering prowess of the famous Lockheed "Skunk Works" division that a plane designed when Jack Kennedy was president held the air speed record until 2004. In my book, the Blackbird still holds that record...an unmanned flight just seems a bit hollow to me.

There is tons of information on the Blackbird, as well as other classic aircraft, at the superb website SR-71 Online, from whence comes the above picture.