Environment & Science

Air Force to test experimental aircraft at 3,600 miles per hour above Southern California waters

An artist's rendering of the X-51
An artist's rendering of the X-51 "WaveRider."
via Boeing.com

The Air Force plans a key test of an experimental aircraft designed to fly at six times the speed of sound, or about 3,600 mph.

The unmanned X-51 WaveRider is expected to reach Mach 6 Tuesday when it's dropped by a B-52 bomber and takes flight off the Southern California coast near Point Mugu, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Engineers hope it sustains its top speed for 300 seconds, twice as long as it's gone before.

A passenger aircraft traveling at Mach 6 could fly from Los Angeles to New York in 46 minutes, according to the Times.

Last year, in its most recent test, the X-51 fell for about four seconds before its booster rocket ignited, but the aircraft failed to separate from the rocket and plunged into the ocean.

Designed by Boeing, the aircraft is intended to allow the Pentagon to deliver strikes around the globe within minutes.

The Air Force Research Laboratory's Robert A. Mercier, deputy for technology in the high speed systems division, told the Times that maintaining hypersonic speeds (five times the speed of sound or more) opens up new possibilities for missiles, military aircraft, spacecraft and passenger planes.

"Since the Wright brothers, we have examined how to make aircraft better and faster. Hypersonic flight is one of those areas that is a potential frontier for aeronautics. I believe we're standing in the door waiting to go into that arena," he said.