Update 2:41 p.m. ET, Aug. 15: The Waverider X-51A test was a failure. The vehicle was launched successfully from a B-52 bomber Tuesday over Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center Sea Range at about 11:35 a.m. PT. But 16 seconds after launch, “a fault was identified with one of the cruiser control fins.” Then, about 15 seconds after the craft separated from the rocket booster, the cruiser lost control.
“It is unfortunate that a problem with this subsystem caused a termination before we could light the Scramjet engine,” said X-51A Program Manager Charlie Brink via a news release Wednesday. “All our data showed we had created the right conditions for engine ignition and we were very hopeful to meet our test objectives.”
The test is a blow to the Waverider program, but also a setback for the development of hypersonic flight, since the control subsystem responsible for the failure had proven “reliable” in past flights.
According to the release, “Program officials will now begin the process of working through a rigorous evaluation to determine the exact cause of all factors at play.”
One of the four X-51A vehicles is left, but there is no official word as to whether it will actually fly.
A roundtable will be scheduled in two weeks, after officials have analyzed data from the failed test.
Original post: Imagine going from New York to London in less than an hour.
The X-51A Waverider, the military’s latest attempt at hypersonic flight, may bring the United States one step closer to realizing that imagined trip duration.
The Waverider is a hypersonic combustion ramjet created to, as the name suggests, ride its own shockwave to achieve speeds as high as Mach 6. The vehicle is unmanned and autonomous, according to an Air Force fact-sheet. The almost-wingless craft, which resembles a shark, is not a weapon system protoytpe. But the technology could offer breakthroughs relevant to space travel, hypersonic weapons, surveillance and reconnaissance, and could otherwise give the United States an opportunity to sharpen its competitive edge when it comes to intelligence-gathering.
The craft also introduces a new type of thermal protection system and uses insulation tiles designed by Boeing that are similar to those used on NASA’s space shuttle orbiters. The most novel aspect of the Waverider, however, is its engine — a “scramjet” engine that runs on JP-7 jet fuel. The combustion engine burns oxygen in the atmosphere, eliminating the need for large fuel tanks. The engine on the Waverider was designed by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, while the heat shield technology was designed by Boeing, the Phantom Works division of which conducted overall “air vehicle design, assembly and testing for the X-51’s various component systems.” On the government side, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and DARPA have been collaborating with the private-sector contractors.
The X-51A has been around for a while. The craft was “conceived in 2004,” according to documentation provided by the Air Force, and completed its first “captive carry flight” in Dec. 2009. The Waverider was not released from the B-52 equipped to carry it during that test. It finally flew, making history in May 2010, achieving speeds approaching Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound. The vehicle flew successfully for 140 seconds, then, after thrust and acceleration decreased, it flew for an additional 30 seconds. But it lost telemetry and was destroyed by controllers on command. The test is considered to be the first of a “practical hydrocarbon fueled scramjet in flight,” according to Air Force documentation.
As for today’s test, the location and timing are being kept under wraps. “At this time we don’t have a news release or any information, it’s really up to the program office,” said Bill Hancock of the 88th Airbase Wing’s Public Affairs office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “They may have something after the test.”
The test is slated to take place at 1 p.m. ET/ 10 a.m. PT over the Pacific Ocean near Point Mugu, according to a spokesman at Andrews Air Force Base, with the Waverider leaving Edwards Air Force Base via B-52. The craft is expected to achieve Mach 6.
CNN’s Mike Mount reports that the Air Force has said that by 2016, it aims to launch working weapons via hypersonic technology. Mount also mentions that breakthroughs in hypersonic technology could help give the United States a sharper edge in intelligence as other nation’s begin to catch up to the U.S. in stealth technology.
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