LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – An unmanned experimental jet broke a world record for speed on Tuesday by accelerating to about 7,000 miles per hour high over the Pacific Ocean in a NASA test of cutting-edge engine technology.
The X-43A aircraft, carried aloft by a modified NASA B-52 apparently reached a speed of just under Mach 10 — nearly ten times the speed of sound — after the jet separated from a booster rocket, officials said.
It was the last of three test launches for the X-43A series and its supersonic-combustion ramjet or “scramjet” engine. The scramjet takes in oxygen from the air for combustion rather than carrying liquid oxygen in a tank like an ordinary rocket.
Scramjet technology, NASA has said, could open the way to cheaper, safer and faster flights into the upper atmosphere, with smaller and lighter craft.
“All indications (are) now we had a successful experiment,” said Griff Corpening, an engineer on the X-43A project.
“It’s absolutely overwhelming to think that we (have) two successful launches now under our belt,” Corpening said. “What a day for the X-43A team, what a day for NASA and certainly a day that all of America can be proud of.”
The eight-year, $230 million program got off to a rough start in June 2001 when the first X-43A and its booster rocket had to be destroyed in mid-air. The second attempt, in March of this year, successfully reached a speed of Mach 7.
That Mach 7 flight set the previous world record for a jet-powered vehicle, NASA said.
The flight on Tuesday had been delayed from the previous day owing to electronics problems.
The silvery-black scramjet took off from Edwards Air Force Base in the desert north of Los Angeles perched below NASA’s B-52 in the early afternoon.
After reaching launch altitude over the Pacific, the modified bomber then dropped the scramjet and its booster rocket for a run at the speed record.
NASA video images showed the scramjet rising sharply, powered by the booster rocket, before the booster separated and the scramjet kicked in. After a few seconds, the X-43A entered a glide, quickly losing speed toward a crash-landing into the ocean, data carried by NASA TV showed.
Along the way, the scramjet was expected to encounter temperatures of about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly one-third hotter than the Mach 7 test in March.
NASA said it had no plans to recover the craft, which has been standard procedure with the scramjet tests.