When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, it ushered in a new era of high-speed air travel. Now, engineers are trying to make the next leap to craft that can fly more than five times the speed of sound. But it is proving difficult.
The missile-like vehicle - powered by a supersonic combustion engine known as a scramjet - was dropped from a B-52 bomber off the coast of southern California It was supposed to be propelled by a solid-rocket booster, then ignite its scramjet engine to reach speeds of up to Mach 6. In the end, the test flight lasted just 31 seconds.
It was the last of three planned tests of the X-51, designed to demonstrate the feasibility of a hypersonic missile. It now joins a long list of failed hypersonic flights that show just how difficult it is to reach these so-called hypersonic speeds, usually defined as Mach 5 or above.
‘Rush to failure’
The appeal of hypersonics is simple: imagine an aircraft that can travel from New York to London in under an hour, or a missile that can reach anywhere in the world in less than two hours. But military experts have long cautioned that missiles, rather than reusable aircraft, are likely to be what will be developed first.
An air-to-air missile or an even an air-to-ground missile is the most likely near-term application for hypersonics, says Werner Dahm, director of Security and Defense Systems Initiative at Arizona State University, and a former US Air Force chief scientist. “It’s technologically much more achievable in the near to midterm,” he says.
Engineers have taken a variety of approaches to hypersonic aircraft over the years: the X-51 is called a WaveRider because it literally rides its own shock waves, and is powered by a scramjet, a variation of the traditional ramjet engine, where the exhaust from fuel combustion is compressed as it goes through the engine. But the Pentagon has also looked at a number of rocket-boosted gliders, and more complicated reusable aircraft powered by combination turbine and ramjet engines, among other designs.
But even building a test vehicle has proved difficult: the first X-51 flight test was cut short due to a flight anomaly, and the second test failed after the vehicle didn’t separate from its rocket, as planned. Yesterday’s failure is likely to raise even more questions about the future of hypersonic efforts. “Hypersonics test and evaluation is extremely unforgiving of miscalculation and error,” says Richard Hallion, a former senior advisor to the Air Force, and a leading expert on hypersonics.
Indeed, hypersonics has a mixed history, littered with the bodies of cancelled test vehicles, particularly those that have proved too ambitious. Hallion says many hypersonic research programs have suffered from a “rush to failure”, where flight vehicles have been flown too early, and then failed not because of an inherent problem in the vehicle, but because of a simple engineering mistake.
Most memorable, perhaps, was the 1980s-era National Aero-Space Plane, which was touted by President Ronald Reagan as a new Orient Express that could travel from Washington, DC to Tokyo in two hours, reaching speeds of up to 25 times the speed of sound. But the test aircraft, dubbed the X-30, proved too costly and vastly too complicated for the technology at the time.
More recently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the research and development arm of the Pentagon, tried to revive the idea of a reusable hypersonic aircraft through a program called Blackswift, though it was soon canceled, after Congress questioned the ability to engineer such an aircraft, given previous failures.