Air Force's X-51A Hypersonic Scramjet Makes Record-Breaking Final Flight (2024)

Air Force's X-51A Hypersonic Scramjet Makes Record-Breaking Final Flight (1)

The U.S. military launched an experimental hypersonic aircraft on its swan song test flight Wednesday (May 1), accelerating the craft to more than five times the speed of sound in the longest-ever mission for a vehicle of its kind.

The Air Force's X-51A Waveriderreached a top speed of Mach 5.1 during the test flight, traveling more than 230 nautical miles in just over six minutes before crashing into the Pacific Ocean off the California coast as planned, Air Force officials announced today (May 3).

Wednesday's flight used the last of four X-51A vehicles built by Boeing for the Air Force experiments. While the previous test, in August 2012, was a failure, Wednesday's mission pulled off the longest air-breathing hypersonic flight ever, officials said.[See Video of the X-51A's Final Flight]

"It was a full mission success," Charlie Brink, X-51A program manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory Aerospace Systems Directorate, said in a statement.

The X-51A took off Wednesday morning from Edwards Air Force Base in California under the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress. The Waverider was released at an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) and used a solid rocket booster to accelerate to Mach 4.8 in just 26 seconds.

The Waverider then separated from the rocket and sped up to Mach 5.1 at an altitutde of 60,000 feet (18,300 m), powered by its air-breathing supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) engine, officials said.

The X-51A burned up the scramjet's four-minute fuel supply and was destroyed as expected upon impacting the Pacific Ocean. All told, the vehicle returned 370 seconds of flight data.

While there is no plan to build any more X-51A vehicles, officials said the $300 million technology demonstration program, which began in 2004, leaves a valuable legacy.

"I believe all we have learned from the X-51A Waverider will serve as the bedrock for future hypersonics research and ultimately the practical application of hypersonic flight," Brink said.

Hypersonic flightis generally defined as anything that reaches speeds above Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. (The speed of sound at sea level is about 762 mph, or 1,226 km/h.)

While most other hypersonic vehicles use hydrogen propellant, the X-51A's scramjet is powered by hydrocarbon fuel, which Air Force officials say is more logistically feasible and could allow the technology to be applied on a broader scale.

The first X-51A test flight occurred in May 2010. It was hailed as a success, as the vehicle flew for more than three minutes and reached Mach 4.88. The next two flights, in June 2011 and August 2012, both failed.

The U.S. military has been studying hypersonic flight in order to develop new weapons capable of striking targets anywhere on Earth within an hour. In addition to the Air Force's work with the X-51A, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched two test flights of its HTV hypersonic bomber prototype, which reached Mach 20 in an August 2011 test flight before losing control.

While that 2011 HTV mission lasted nine minutes, the vehicle only demonstrated controlled flight for three minutes during the test. The HTV was also a glider vehicle, and not an air-breathing scramjet.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter@michaeldwallandGoogle+.Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebookor Google+. Originally published

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Mike Wall

Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer withSpace.comand joined the team in 2010.He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat.His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.

More about spaceflight

China to launch sample-return mission to the moon's far side on May 3Mars exploration, new rockets and more: Interview with ESA chief Josef Aschbacher


China releases world's most detailed moon atlas (video)
See more latest►

Most Popular
Astronomers finally know why stars born from the same cloud aren't identical twins
Private moon lander will carry Nokia's 4G cell network to the lunar surface this year
Hubble Space Telescope pauses science due to gyroscope issue
'Traffic jams' in the hearts of galaxies can force black holes to collide
'Cat nights' are here as Leo, Leo minor, and Lynx constellations prowl the evening sky
Highly precise atomic clocks could soon get even better. Here's how
Mars exploration, new rockets and more: Interview with ESA chief Josef Aschbacher
Everything we know about James Gunn's Superman
Sneak peek: Browncoats grab victory in Boom! Studios' upcoming 'Firefly: 'Verses' comic (exclusive)
SpaceX launches 23 Starlink satellites from Florida (video)
NASA's mission to an ice-covered moon will contain a message between water worlds
Air Force's X-51A Hypersonic Scramjet Makes Record-Breaking Final Flight (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Catherine Tremblay

Last Updated:

Views: 6430

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (47 voted)

Reviews: 94% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Catherine Tremblay

Birthday: 1999-09-23

Address: Suite 461 73643 Sherril Loaf, Dickinsonland, AZ 47941-2379

Phone: +2678139151039

Job: International Administration Supervisor

Hobby: Dowsing, Snowboarding, Rowing, Beekeeping, Calligraphy, Shooting, Air sports

Introduction: My name is Catherine Tremblay, I am a precious, perfect, tasty, enthusiastic, inexpensive, vast, kind person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.