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Fast flight: Nasa jets blasts past 5,000mph.

Three years after its first test flight ended in an explosion, Nasa yesterday successfully launched an experimental jet that the agency believes reached a record-setting speed of about 5,000mph.

The unpiloted X-43A made an 11-second powered flight, then went through some twists and turns during a six-minute glide before plunging into the Pacific Ocean about 400 miles off the California coast.

'It was fun all the way to Mach 7,' said Joel Sitz, project manager at Nasa's Dryden Flight Research Centre.

Flight engineer Lawrence Huebner said preliminary data indicated the needle-nosed jet reached a maximum speed of slightly over seven times the speed of sound, or about 5,000 mph, after a rocket boosted it to about 3,500 mph.

Huebner said it was the first time an 'air-breathing' jet had ever travelled so fast. The rocket-powered X-15 reached Mach 6.7 in 1967.

The first X-43A flight ended in failure on June 2, 2001, after the modified Pegasus rocket used to accelerate the plane veered off course and was detonated.

Nasa built the X-43A under a $250 million (pounds 140 million) programme to develop and test an exotic type of engine called a supersonic-combustion ramjet, or scramjet.

In theory, the air-breathing engine could propel an aeroplane to speeds of Mach 7 or faster, enabling around-the-world flights that would take several hours. The US Department of Defence is also working on the technology, which it is eyeing for use in bombers that quickly could reach targets anywhere on the globe.

The 12ft long, 2,800lb X-43A was mounted on a rocket booster and carried to an altitude of 40,000ft by a modified B-52 bomber, which took off from Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert.

A few seconds after the craft was dropped, the rocket flared, sending the jet skyward on a streak of flame and light. At about 100,000ft, the rocket dropped away.

The scramjet took over, using up about two pounds of gaseous hydrogen fuel before gliding.

Applause rang out in the control centre at Dryden Flight Research Centre at Edwards.

It will be decades before such a plane could enter service.

CAPTION(S):

NASA's experimental X-43A jet, mounted on a Pegasus rocket booster, drops away after detaching from a modified B-52B bomber
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 29, 2004
Words:379
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