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NASA will take a step closer to viable hypersonic air travel when it tests its scramjet-powered X43A.

NASA hopes that the project will successfully overcome the great technological hurdle for such vehicles - how to accelerate to greater than Mach 5 (approx. 3,600mph at sea level) without using rocket motors.

The scramjet uses atmospheric oxygen, thereby avoiding the need for bulky - and heavy - oxygen tanks. It has no turbine or moving parts, but rather relies on forward motion and the aircraft's design to compress air into the combustion chamber where it is mixed with hydrogen and ignited.

The prototype pilotless X-43A and its Pegasus booster rocket will be dropped from a B-52. Once the Pegasus has blasted the vehicle to Mach 7, the X-43 will continue its journey under its own steam.

According to NASA's blurb: "Three flights are planned - two at Mach 7 and one at Mach 10. The flight tests will be conducted within the Western Test Range off the coast of southern California. The flights will terminate in the Pacific Ocean and the vehicles will not be recovered."

Although the X-43A programme is aimed at providing cheap, reuseable space vehicles, it does offer the delicious prospect of hypersonic civilian aircraft.

If NASA can pull it off - and at the same time deal once and for with obstreperous French air traffic controllers and striking baggage handlers - the result could be a civil aviation revolution.

Indeed, Vulture Central boffins have calculated that the average Reg hack's two hour slog into work - courtesy of the London Underground - could be reduced to as little as five seconds. Impressive stuff. ®

Bootnote

Thanks to Chris Fulstow for keeping a watch on the skies for us.

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