Scramjet-powered X-51A Waverider missile breaks Mach 5 record

On Wednesday morning, a US Air Force X-51A Waverider missile sustained speeds of Mach 5 for more than 200 seconds, the US Air Force has announced. The X-51A Waverider, which was launched over the southern California coast, is powered by next-gen scramjet technology.

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    The X-51A Waverider, shown here in an Air Force illustration, reportedly hit speeds of Mach 6 during a test flight this week. The X-51A Waverider is powered by a Pratt Whitney Rocketdyne SJY61 scramjet engine.
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The US Air Force has confirmed that its X-51A Waverider cruise missile – a next-generation vehicle powered by scramjet technology – hit speeds of Mach 5 during a test run over the Pacific Ocean on Wednesday morning. According to the Air Force, the X-51A Waverider was carried by a B-52 aircraft to an altitude of 50,000 feet, and launched somewhere off the southern California coast.

The X-51A Waverider reportedly sustained a Mach 5 speed for approximately 200 seconds, before "a vehicle anomaly occurred and the flight was terminated." Still, the 200 seconds at Mach 5 was enough to beat the previous scramjet record of 12 seconds. In an interview with the Associated Press, Charlie Brink, an X-51A program manager at the Air Force Research Laboratory, called the flight historic.

"We are ecstatic to have accomplished many of the X-51A test points during its first hypersonic mission," Brink said. "We equate this leap in engine technology as equivalent to the post-World War II jump from propeller-driven aircraft to jet engines." A USAF source interviewed by Wired magazine agreed, noting "some hitches at the end of flight," but calling the Waverider test "a magnificent first flight."

Recommended: Test of scramjet-powered X-51A engine [VIDEO]

Pratt and Whitney, which designed the scramjet engine on the Waverider described the launch from the B-52 thusly:

A solid rocket booster fired and propelled the cruiser to greater than Mach 4.5, creating the supersonic environment necessary to operate the engine. The booster was then jettisoned and the Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne SJY61 scramjet engine ignited, initially on gaseous ethylene fuel. Next the engine transitioned to JP-7 jet fuel, the same fuel once carried by the SR-71 Blackbird before its retirement.

The X-51A program is the product of a partnership between the USAF, Pratt and Whitney, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), NASA, and the Boeing Company. According to Pratt and Whitney, the scramjet technology on the X-51A could be used in a range of scenarios, including defense and space flight.

Related: Test of scramjet-powered X-51A engine [VIDEO]

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the speed of the missile. X-51A hit Mach 5 for 200 seconds.]

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