August 13, 2012
It may look like a vehicle the Thunderbirds would travel in, but in fact this experimental aircraft could be the future of long haul flights.
It uses a revolutionary 'scramjet' engine that allows it to travel at hypersonic speeds.
Tomorrow, it will be dropped from a B52 bomber in its latest test.
London to New York in Less than an hour: The X-51A Waverider is designed to ride on its own shockwave, accelerating to about Mach 6
The craft, called the X-51A Waverider, is currently being prepared at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert.
Tomorrow, it will take part in a key test.
Attached to a B-52 bomber's wing, it will be taken from Edwards to about 50,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean near Point Mugu.
there' it will be dropped and the engines fired. The entire mission will last just 300 seconds, but will be the longest the craft has ever flown for.
Hypersonic flight is seen as the next step for aircraft.
'Attaining sustained hypersonic flight is like going from propeller-driven aircraft to jet aircraft,' Robert Mercier, deputy for technology in the high speed systems division at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio told the New york Times..
'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.'
The experimental craft will be tested strapped to the wing of a B-52 bomber. Once released, it's radical scramjet engines will be fired, hopefully accelerating the craft up to Mach 6, over 2,000 metres per second.
The project is being funded by Nasa and the Pentagon, who hope it can be used for military stealth aircraft and new weapons.
The WaveRider program is estimated to cost $140 million, according to Globalsecurity.org, a website for military policy research.
It has had a mixed history, with previous tests being aborted after the engine stalled.
The latest test will see the craft freefall for four seconds over the Pacific before its booster rocket engine ignites and propels the nearly wingless aircraft for 30 seconds to about Mach 4.5, before being jettisoned.
Then the cruiser's scramjet engine, notable because it has virtually no moving parts, ignites.
The WaveRider is expected to accelerate to about Mach 6 as it climbs to nearly 70,000 feet.
After 300 seconds of flight, the WaveRider is set to break up after splashing into the Pacific, as planned.
There are no plans to recover the WaveRider.
The X-51A Waverider on the wing of a B-52 Stratofortress. A previous test was the longest supersonic combustion ramjet-powered hypersonic flight to date.
The scramjet engine is designed to ride on its own shockwave, and should see the test craft accelerate to about Mach 6.