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Can you fathom flying N.Y. to London in just one hour?

October 06, 2015
X-51A WaveRider
An artist’s conception of the futuristic X-51A WaveRider in flight.

We have yet to reach the Star Trek future where a travel agent named Scotty can be commanded to simply beam us to and from our destinations.

Thanks to an advanced technology project being managed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, we are moving a step closer to a science fiction future of travel. Collaborating on the project with the Air Force are DARPA, NASA, Boeing, and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

Can you fathom flying from New York to London in just one hour? We may be on the cusp of doing exactly that.

The experimental aircraft is called the X-51A WaveRider, and it is designed to fly at 50,000 feet and move at Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. That’s one mile per second, or almost 4,000 miles per hour.

A team at an Air Force research laboratory has flown the unmanned X-51A four times, dropping it from the underside of a B-52 bomber and igniting its powerful engines. The first two efforts failed. The third was a partial success. Finally, on the fourth try, it flew for a total of six minutes, and three and a half of those minutes were with the “scramjet” engine, breaking its own record from its first flight in 2010 when the WaveRider flew for 143 seconds.

The key is the jet engines. Current jet-engine technology has difficulty going any faster than two or three times the speed of sound because their rotating parts would get too hot to stay operational. The jet engines on the WaveRider have almost no moving parts. The so-called scramjet engine (which stands for supersonic combustion ramjet) obtains the combustible oxygen required for flight from the air passing through the engine itself, rather than from an onboard tank. That extremely hot air is mixed with jet fuel and lit on fire at just the right moment to create propulsion.

This technology is promising to open a new frontier in aviation, moving the most advanced form of air travel from supersonic to hypersonic speeds. It will also open a new frontier in business and leisure travel.

The military application for this technology is to manufacture high-speed attack weapons that can evade any air defense system. Think in terms of a hypersonic missile, followed, in time, by hypersonic bombers and jetfighters.

The commercial application would be new airliners that whisk travelers to their destinations in record time.

There are still some technological challenges to be overcome, including keeping the fuselage cool while aircraft’s exterior is generating extreme heat (2,250 degree Fahrenheit) while the engines are burning fuel at 5,000 degrees.

An exciting future awaits airline travelers.

If you would like to see what hypersonic air travel looks, click here to see the X-51A WaveRider in action.

Written by Mike Consol