EDWARDS, CALIFORNIA -- Engineers here are on the fast-track, readying the next flight of NASA’s X-43A, a super-sleek, high-speed craft powered by a scramjet engine.
Earlier this year, the unpiloted 12-foot-long, 5-foot-wide surfboard-looking vehicle howled its way into the history books. The X-43A reached its test speed of Mach 7 -- seven times the speed of sound, or about 5,000 miles per hour. In doing so it set a world-record speed for “air-breathing” flight, the rocket technology advanced by NASA’s Hyper-X program.
The X-43A’s air-breathing scramjet “breathes in” oxygen from the atmosphere rather than toting along an oxidizer, mixing it with a cache of onboard rocket fuel to produce combustion and forward thrust.
Being the hypersonic air-breather it is, the X-43A also caused some hyperventilation among project leaders when they watched the vessel tear itself apart on its inaugural flight on June 2, 2001. On that day the X-43A never reached test conditions.
But on a successful second flight, the X-43A flew freely for several minutes following scramjet engine operation. The vehicle's supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet, ignited as planned and operated for the duration of its hydrogen fuel supply.
Now it’s full speed ahead to Mach 10.
Here at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, the third X-43A is undergoing “short-stack integration,” explained Joel Sitz, X-43A project manager at the center. The craft is being outfitted and tested for a Mach 10 mission in the September-October time frame, he told SPACE.com .
Jacking up the speed will mean the vehicle will see higher heat loads than those observed on the Mach 7 flight on March 27.
“At Mach 7, the front leading edge of the vehicle would see about 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. At Mach 10, it’s probably twice that…twice the heat load essentially,” Sitz explained.
Those blistering temperatures will be tamed by special thermal protection applied to the Mach 10 vehicle, Sitz said. “The coatings that we are using were sort of a mini-research experiment in itself.”
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X-43A: Full Speed Ahead to Mach 10
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