Going hypersonic with the X-51A Waverider (images)

On Tuesday the Air Force plans to launch a scramjet-powered test vehicle that could hit Mach 6 en route to a new generation of spacecraft and missiles.

Jon Skillings
1 of 10 U.S. Air Force graphic

X-51A Waverider

Beyond supersonic speeds lies the realm of the hypersonic--faster than Mach 5.0, or in somewhat more down-to-earth terms, in excess of just under 4,000 miles per hour. On Tuesday, the U.S. Air Force plans to venture into that realm with the test flight of a chisel-shaped aircraft called the X-51A Waverider.

The test won't last long. The sleek, 14-foot-long X-51A will zip through the air for only about five minutes, but in that time it could hit a speed of Mach 6, or six times the speed of sound. It'll be pushed to that blink-of-an-eye tempo by what's known as a scramjet engine, "scramjet" being the compression of the phrase "supersonic combustion ramjet." This kind of engine is designed to burn oxygen from the atmosphere, unlike conventional rocket engines whose functioning requires a combination of oxidizers and big fuel tanks.

Update, Wednesday 7:42 a.m. PDT: Tuesday's planned flight of the X-51A was postponed by a day because of freighter traffic in the Pacific Ocean test area.

Update, Thursday 12:26 p.m. PDT: The X-51A flew later Wednesday morning. To find out how well it performed, see "X-51A races to hypersonic record."

2 of 10 U.S. Air Force graphic

X-51A on a B-52 wing

Tuesday's test, weather permitting, will be the first free flight for the X-51A. The scramjet aircraft has been aloft twice before, both times attached to the wing of a B-52. And that's how Tuesday's flight will begin, too. The B-52 will take off from Edwards Air Force Base in California, then head out to a Pacific ocean test range where the Waverider will be released at approximately 50,000 feet. A solid rocket booster on the X-51A will accelerate the test vehicle to about Mach 4.5, at which point the scramjet engine will kick in to push the vehicle toward 70,000 feet and Mach 6, according to the Air Force. At the end of its five-minute autonomous flight, the X-51A will head for a planned splashdown and crackup--the Air Force does not plan to recover the vehicle.

"In those 300 seconds, we hope to learn more about hypersonic flight with a practical scramjet engine than all previous flight tests combined," said Charlie Brink, X-51A program manager with the Air Force Research Laboratory's Propulsion Directorate, in a statement last week.

The Air Force says this will be the only hypersonic flight this year, largely for budgetary reasons but also to allow for maintenance to the Air Force Flight Test Center's B-52.

3 of 10 U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Cassidy

B-52 aloft with X-51A

This image from December shows the X-51A in the air attached to the B-52, marking the first of its two captive flights. That trip was to check out the communications and telemetry systems, as well as the B-52's handling with the Waverider aboard.

In its autonomous flight Tuesday, the X-51A is expected to transmit "vast amounts of data" to ground stations. A U.S. Navy P-3 Orion aircraft also will relay telemetry data to people on the ground.

Expectations are that the X-51A program could lead both to hypersonic weapons--think of a cruise missile, but faster--and to cheaper space planes as eventual follow-ons to the soon-to-be-retired space shuttles.

4 of 10 U.S. Air Force photo/Chad Bellay

B-52 with X-51A, on the ground

The X-51A Waverider, seen here during a fitting test last July, is a combined effort of the Air Force Research Laboratory and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), along with Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.
5 of 10 U.S. Air Force photo/Chad Bellay

X-51A up close

The Rocketdyne SJY61 scramjet engine has virtually no moving parts, while the exterior has minimal wings. "Hypersonic combustion generates intense heat," goes part of the Air Force's explanation of the technology, "so routing of the engine's own JP-7 fuel will serve to both cool the engine and heat the fuel to optimum operating temperature for combustion."

Air enters the engine through a scoop at the front of the X-51A. "It is critical for air entering the inlet to be turbulent at hypersonic speeds, or the engine could 'unstart,' causing it to crash," according to a 2008 news release from the Purdue University School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which has assisted in research for the X-51A program. "For this reason, air has to be converted to a turbulent flow before entering the inlet. This conversion is accomplished using a raised strip of metal placed near the inlet to 'trip' the air from smooth to turbulent."

Meanwhile, airflow over the top of the Waverider has to be smooth to minimize damaging friction and heat.

6 of 10 U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Cassidy

X-51A captive test

Here's another look at the X-51A attached to the B-52 underwing ahead of the December captive flight test.
7 of 10 U.S. Air Force photo/Chad Bellay

X-51A on a dolly

The X-51A being rolled out to the flight line last July for fit testing. The X-51A that flies Tuesday is one of four such test vehicles.
8 of 10 U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Cassidy

Anechoic test

In early 2008, a mockup of the X-51A went through monthlong testing of its antennas and communications systems at the Benefield Anechoic Facility at Edwards AFB.
9 of 10 Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger

Testing at Purdue

At Purdue, meanwhile, a model of the X-51A was used in hypersonic wind tunnel testing, specifically looking at the airflow over the front end of the design.
10 of 10 NASA

X-43A, the hypersonic champ

As fast as the X-51A Waverider goes, it won't break the speed records set in 2004 by a pair of scramjet-powered X-43A aircraft (seen here in an artist's rendering). In March of that year, an X-43A zoomed to Mach 6.8, or roughly 5,000 mph, and then in November that same year, an identical aircraft surpassed Mach 9.8, or 6,800 mph, in the final flight of the X-43A program. The 2004 record-setting flights, however, lasted only about 10 seconds and used a hydrogen fuel, according to the Air Force.

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