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Three strikes for X-51A: Hypersonic hope for Mach 6 plummets into the Pacific

X-51A

Photo courtesy of Boeing/U.S. Air Force

The X-51A Waverider is mounted under the wing of a B-52 at Edwards AFB Calif., in preparation of its August 14 test flight. On a previous flight, the X-51A flew for more than three minutes at Mach 4.88 under scramjet power.

X-51A

Photo courtesy of Boeing/U.S. Air Force

The B-52 carrying the X-51A Waverider takes off from Edwards AFB, Calif., in preparation of the August 14 test flight. The test ended prematurely when a fault with a control fin caused the vehicle to lose control.


And then there was one.

At six times speed of splash, an unmanned, experimental hypersonic plane failed to fly after being dropped by a B-52 bomber Tuesday off the coast of California near Point Mugu.

Before bailing into the Pacific Ocean, the Boeing-built bullet was supposed to shoot through the sky for five minutes in an attempt to reach Mach 6, or 3,600 mph, or six times the speed of sound.

However, for reasons unknown, a fault in the X-51A Waverider's control fin prevented the supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) engine from lighting, and that was the end of that.

"X-51A flight ends prematurely" reads Wednesday's official Air Force statement:

The X-51A Waverider successfully launched from an Air Force B-52 bomber over Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center Sea Range Aug. 14 at approximately 11:36 a.m. PST.


The X-51 safely separated from the B-52 and the rocket booster fired as planned. However after 16 seconds, a fault was identified with one of the cruiser control fins. Once the X-51 separated from the rocket booster, approximately 15 seconds later, the cruiser was not able to maintain control due to the faulty control fin and was lost. 

Only one of the original four X-51A vehicles now remains. If, or when, that vehicle will fly, has not yet been decided by officials. The first craft achieved Mach 5 for about 140 seconds in 2010. A 2011 test ended prematurely with the craft trying to restart its engine. 

Other hypersonic projects are also under way. In November 2011, the Pentagon tested an "advanced hypersonic weapon," says the Associated Press, and in August 2011, a glider dubbed HTV-2 peeled apart during a test.

Hypersonic technology could lead to the ability to carry out a military strike anywhere in the world in less than 60 minutes. 

WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE FROM THE COAST

Do you have a photo of Tuesday's test? Email it to us.




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