LOS ANGELES, California — NASA has made aeronautics history by launching an experimental jet that reached a record velocity of just over seven times the speed of sound.
Fifty-seven years after test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, NASA on Saturday launched the unpiloted research jet, in a development some observers say could change the future of space travel.
It is the first time a supersonic-combustion ramjet, or scramjet, which uses air for fuel, had traveled so fast, flight engineer Lawrence Huebner told reporters.
Scientists hope such jets will make space travel more affordable and spur commercial ventures.
Some observers compared Saturday’s accomplishment to the Wright brothers’ first powered flight.
The 12-foot-long (3.65-meter), X-43A experimental craft rode atop a Pegasus booster rocket that was launched from a converted B-52 bomber about 400 miles (643 kilometers) off the coast of southern California.
As planned, the X-43A plunged into the Pacific Ocean after the test and was not recovered.
Pegasus, which flew to nearly 100,000 feet, reached a speed of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, preliminary data on the test flight showed.
The needle-nosed scramjet then reached a maximum speed of slightly over seven times the speed of sound, or about 5,000 mph (8,000 kilometers).
“It’s a great way to end, certainly all the sweeter because of all the challenges we’ve had to step up to and overcome through the life of this project,” said Griffin Corpening, chief engineer on the project at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center.
The first X-43A flight ended in failure June 2, 2001, after the modified Pegasus rocket used to accelerate the plane veered off course and was detonated.
An investigation board found preflight analyses failed to predict how the rocket would perform, leaving its control system unable to maintain stable flight.
NASA built the X-43A under a $250 million program to develop and test these exotic type of engines.
Saturday’s flight tested aspects of a design to allow planes to overcome the pull of Earth’s gravity by reaching escape velocity.
The “air-breathing” jet was not bogged down with heavy fuel tanks, Huebner said.
The space agency’s dogged pursuit of extreme speed, officials hope, will ultimately make space flight easier to accomplish.
It also could drastically cut the time of commercial flights — perhaps shortening the trip between New York and London to less than five hours.
After Pegasus released the X-43A, it flew under its own power for six minutes to do maneuvers over the ocean.
The B-52 left California at 3:40 p.m. ET, taking at least an hour to reach the launch site over the ocean. The entire test lasted only about 10 minutes.
NASA said it could test a vehicle at Mach 10 by the end of the year.