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Third Mach 6 Aircraft Test Fails

by Mike Godfrey,, Washington

17 August 2012

Tests led by a consortium including the US Air Force and Boeing to develop an aircraft that can travel at Mach 6, six times the speed of sound, failed to achieve targeted speeds during a third test flight held on August 14, 2012.

The project is seen as a first step towards the eventual development of hypersonic commercial flights, as well as increasing the speed of US missiles. The X-51A Waverider, an unmanned prototype aircraft, was dropped from a B52 bomber in a third attempt at reaching speeds of approximately 3,600 miles per hour (5,800km/h). However, a malfunction cut short the test flight, which was said to have achieved Mach 5 speeds, consistent with the achievements of earlier flights.

A first test flight held on May 26, 2010, obliterated the previous record of the longest flight by an air breathing scramjet engine with a 200-second flight. Previously the longest flight at Mach 5 was 12 seconds with an engine of this type, achieved by the NASA X-43.

Hypersonic flight, normally defined as beginning at Mach 5, five times the speed of sound, presents unique technical challenges because heat and pressure make conventional turbine engines impractical. Program officials said producing thrust with a scramjet has been compared to lighting a match in a hurricane and keeping it burning.

Commenting on the issues encountered during the third test flight, the US Air Force reported that "after 16 seconds, a fault was identified with one of the cruiser control fins. Once the X-51 separated from the rocket booster, approximately 15 seconds later, the cruiser was not able to maintain control due to the faulty control fin and was lost."

EADS, the European parent company of Airbus, is said to also be developing its own hypersonic aircraft, Flightpath 2050, envisaged to be launched from 2050, which would exit earth's atmosphere at speeds as high as Mach 4 before gliding unpowered to its destination, where engines would be restarted to land. Completion of a Mach 6 aircraft would reduce flight times between London and New York to around an hour, while EADS plans for a Mach 4 aircraft would reduce the flight time between Europe and Tokyo to around two-and-a-half hours.

Although emissions that damage the Earth are said to be drastically lower from these aircraft than those of existing commercial airlines due to the altitude at which they fly, the aircraft would require substantial fuel to achieve supersonic speeds and therefore would be targeted at high-net-worth-individuals, heads of corporations and governments.

TAGS: aviation

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