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NASA scramjet hits Mach 7

First successful flight of 'airframe integrated' device

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NASA scientists are delighted - and doubtless relieved - at the successful launch and testing of their X-43A scramjet vehicle on Saturday.

The X-43A and its Pegasus booster rocket were released from a B-52 at 40,000ft. The booster carried the rocket to 95,000ft and, after successful separation of the two, the scramjet operated independently for over 15 miles at speeds around Mach 7 (c.5,000mph).

The NASA X-43A mission profile

Larry Huebner, scramjet propulsion research engineer on NASA's

Hyper-X program

, said the scramjet experienced "positive acceleration" during its short flight. "Our vehicle under airbreathing power went over 15 miles," he enthused. "The flight today was the first-ever airframe integrated scramjet engine experiment. We can claim an air-breathing powered record today... no doubt about it."

Huebner's reference to the "first-ever airframe integrated scramjet" is certainly a nod to the Australian team who in 2002 fired up its own rocket-propelled HyShot scramjet. That had no integrated vehicle, but hit around Mach 7.6 with its projectile host's assistance. The HyShot site notes that: "Supersonic combustion was achieved on the second flight".

Which is what it's all about. To qualify for the title, a successful scramjet must mix atmospheric air with hydrogen and ignite it while flow throughout the engine remains at supersonic speeds.

The advantages of the technology are clear: the scramjet contains relatively few moving parts compared to a conventional turbine jet engine. NASA hopes that hypersonic passenger transports will be one benefit of the technology.

However, the scramjet may still have some way to go before becoming a viable transportation technology. NASA's success on Saturday comes almost three years after the X-43A's first flight ended in self-destruction provoked by a booster rocket malfunction. ®

Related stories

NASA jet to hit Mach 10
NASA scramjet crashes and burns
NASA scramjet probe hots up
Aussies go for scramjet gold
NASA scramjet ready to roll

Gartner critical capabilities for enterprise endpoint backup

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