The United States Air Force, in association with DARPA (Defence Advanced Projects Research Agency), has begun working on a whole fleet of the experimental hypersonic jet X-51A. The jet, capable of reaching speeds five times that of sound, will cover the distance between Los Angeles to New York in just under 30 minutes.
The U.S. Air Force feels confident it would take a lot less time than it took last time to develop a hypersonic jet. The first generation X-51A jet will be used as an inspiration. However, unlike the previous prototype which was intentionally crashed into the ocean, these new jets will be reusable. The Air Force hopes to have multiple hypersonic jets ready by 2023, shared Air Force chief Scientist Mica Endsley.
“X-51 was really a proof-of-concept test. It showed that you could get a scramjet engine, launch it off an aircraft and it could go hypersonic. It was able to go more than Mach 5 until it ran out of fuel. It was a very successful test of an airborne hypersonic weapons system.”
At its top speed, the X-51A covered 230 nautical miles in just six minutes. The data that the Air Force collected from the test-flight will aid the development of a superior model. However, passengers hoping to travel at such speeds will be disappointed. As hinted by Endsley, the X-51A is primarily an unmanned delivery plane.
The Air Force has planned a whole fleet of hypersonic jets that would be ready to transport sensors, equipment, and weaponry all across the world in the shortest time possible. Being able to deliver payloads with speeds that are way better than the enemy’s will certainly give an unmatchable advantage in battle. Additionally, the technology could eventually be used in intercontinental missiles that would reach their targets way sooner than those sent by the enemy.
The fastest cruise missiles today can travel at 965 km/hr (600 mph). If missile are outfitted with the X-51A’s engines, they could travel at speeds close to 6,000 km/hr (3,800 mph). The Air Force does caution that, at such speeds, multiple minor factors become critical.
The Air Force has begun perfecting plane materials, navigation systems, and other key components that have to withstand the rigors of hypersonic travel.
Interestingly, hypersonic jets are less expensive than traditional turbine engines, as they require fewer parts and use a lot of air as fuel, as against traditional jets that rely of aviation fuel to turn the turbines that push the air backward.
If the engine technology is advancing at such a rate, shouldn’t commercial airlines develop suits that allow its passengers manage the forces of acceleration, rather than simply shrink the seats to cram in more of them?
[Image Credit: US Air Force / Getty Images]