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AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 MINS; NASA hopes for new era in flight as revolutionary scramjet hits seven times the speed of sound.

Byline: By Craig McDonald

A 5000MPH aircraft which could make the world an even smaller place flew for the first time yesterday.

The X-43A broke the world speed record by hitting seven times the speed of sound.

And the tiny aircraft's revolutionary scramjet could slash flight times to destinations around the world.

The experimental hypersonic plane which is just 12 feet long was dropped from a B-52 bomber over California.

It climbed through the stratosphere to a height of 100,000ft with the aid of a rocket, before reaching 4780mph.

It then fired its engine for 11 seconds and went through a series of aerobatic manoevres, before a planned splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA spokeswoman Leslie Williams said: 'It was the most beautiful thing I've seen. Everything went according to plan.'

Now the dream is that the hypersonic aircraft could represent the future of long-distance air travel.

Using scramjet technology, a trip from Glasgow to New York could be completed in 40 minutes.

And a jaunt to Paris would take just seven minutes.

A flight to Sydney, Australia, would take less than three hours, while a trip to Tenerife could be completed in 25 minutes.

NASA scientists believe the jet is the future of space travel.

Project manager Joel Sitz said: 'The scramjet is the Holy Grail of aeronautics.

'If you go from ground to space, you need to use a scramjet if you're going to do it in the most efficient way you can.

'Efficient access to space opens up a whole new world for industry in the future, to be able to get to space and get back, quickly, and do it several times a month.'

The supersonic combustible ramjet scramjet for short burns hydrogen but take its oxygen from the air, which is forced into the engine at very high speed.

Traditional rocket engines have to carry their own source of oxygen.

NASA are spending more than pounds 150million on the project but it could be 2025 before they get a pilot behind the controls of a scramjet.

NASA propulsion engineer Lawrence Huebner said: 'To put this in perspective, a little over 100 years ago a couple of guys from Ohio flew for 120 feet in the first controlled powered flight.

'Today, we did something very similar in the same amount of time but our vehicle under air-breathing power went over 15 miles.'

The theory behind a scramjet is very simple but making it fly is a different matter.

The jet works by the supersonic combustion of fuel in a stream of air compressed by the high forward speed of the aircraft.

Sophisticated and secret geometry in the engine allows hydrogen to combust with air moving through the engine.

At that speed, a molecule of air stays in the engine for just a millisecond, creating an enormous amount of thrust.

But a scramjet can only begin to operate at about Mach 6.

Saturday's mission began with the B-52 bomber taking off from Edwards Air Force Base in California, carrying the tiny prototype aircraft under its wing.

Once the bomber reached cruising altitude of 40,000 feet, the X-43A was launched in mid-air.

Its speed was initially boosted by a rocket, which fell away at 100,000 feet, leaving the X-43A to fly under its own power for 11 seconds.

The 1300kg wedge-shaped research craft separated from its booster and accelerated away with the power from its scramjet.

The mission marked the first time a scramjet engine had successfully powered a vehicle in flight at hypersonic speeds.

An attempt to fly an X-43A in 2001 ended in the destruction of the vehicle when its launch system failed.

The world's fastest air-breathing aircraft, the SR-71, cruises slightly faster than Mach 3, at around 2000 mph.

Scramjet technology was first suggested as long ago as 1950.

But it was 50 years later before the first engine was test-fired.

The first test of the X-43A, which took place on June 2, 2001, failed when fins sheered off the booster rocket.

The aircraft which ended up in the sea yesterday will not be recovered because of the cost.

Scientists believe the jet which has no moving parts could eventually enable man to reach flight speeds of Mach 10 and above.

But the engineering challenges will probably mean that it is first used to transport small payloads into space or to deploy satellites in orbit.

CAPTION(S):

UP, UP AND AWAY; HERE WE GO: The rocket is dropped from the bomber wing; ON A WING AND A PRAYER: The tiny X43A is dwarfed by the bomber and the rocket
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Mar 29, 2004
Words:767
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