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NASA scramjet nudges Mach 10

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NASA's third and final test of the X-43A scramjet ended successfully yesterday when the vehicle reached a velocity of almost Mach 9.8 over the Pacific. The record-breaking flight is a triumph for the team behind the X-43A; but the technology's future remains uncertain.

The X-43A and its Pegasus booster rocket were lifted by B-52 to a height of 40,000ft yesterday evening. After separation, the Pegasus carried the X-43A to around 111,000ft, at which point both were travelling at around Mach 9. The X-43A then parted company from its booster and preliminary telemetry suggests that it was able to continue under its own power for around 620 miles before falling into the ocean.

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe declared: "This flight is a key milestone and a major step toward the future possibilities for producing boosters for sending large and critical payloads into space in a reliable, safe, inexpensive manner. These developments will also help us advance the Vision for Space Exploration, while helping to advance commercial aviation technology."

J. Victor Lebacqz, NASA's associate administrator for Aeronautics Research, added: "This shows how much we can accomplish when we manage the risk and work together toward a common goal. NASA has made a tremendous contribution to the body of knowledge in aeronautics with the Hyper-X program, as well as making history."

The Hyper-X program was established to develop alternative power plants for both space and commercial aviation vehicles. However, the proposed X-43C - a larger hypersonic vehicle - was cancelled in January. The US has now committed to conventional rocket-powered space vehicles currently being planned as part of NASA's Constellation project. As we recently reported, Boeing and Northrop Grumman have teamed up to pitch for the contract to develop a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), based on the Apollo command module concept.

So much then for scramjet-launched interplanetary missions. But while it remains to be seen what future use, if any, will be made of the data gathered during the X-43A programme, one thing is certain: it went like the clappers and is the fastest air-breathing engine craft ever. ®

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