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Mach 7 wind tunnel test of the full-scale X-43A model with spare flight engine in Langley's 8-Foot High Temperature Tunnel.

Photo Number: ED04-0082-2
Photo Date: unknown
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Mach 7 wind tunnel test of the full-scale X-43A model with spare flight engine in Langley's 8-Foot High Temperature Tunnel.
The experimental X-43A hypersonic research aircraft, part aircraft and part spacecraft, will be dropped from the wing of a modified B-52 aircraft, boosted to nearly 100,000 feet altitude by a booster rocket and released over the Pacific Ocean to briefly fly under its own power at seven times the speed of sound, almost 5,000 mph.

The flight is part of the Hyper-X program, a research effort designed to demonstrate alternate propulsion technologies for access to space and high-speed flight within the atmosphere. It will provide unique "first time" free flight data on hypersonic air-breathing engine technologies that have large potential pay-offs.

The $250 million program began with conceptual design and scramjet engine wind tunnel work in 1996. In a scramjet (supersonic-combustion ramjet), the flow of air through the engine remains supersonic, or greater than the speed of sound, for optimum engine efficiency and vehicle speed. A scramjet operates by supersonic combustion of fuel in a stream of air com,pressed by the high forward speed of the aircraft, as opposed to a normal jet engine, in which the compressor blades compress the air. Scramjets start operation at about Mach 6, or six times the speed of sound. There are few or no moving parts in a scramjet engine, but achieving proper ignition and combustion in a matter of milliseconds proved to be an engineering challenge of the highest order.

Researchers believe these technologies may someday offer more airplane-like operations and other benefits compared to traditional rocket systems. Rockets provide limited throttle control and must carry heavy tanks filled with liquid oxygen, necessary for combustion of fuel. An air-breathing engine, like that on the X-43A, scoops oxygen from the air as it flies. The weight savings could be used to increase payload capacity, increase range or reduce vehicle size for the same payload.

NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., and Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., jointly conduct the Hyper-X program. ATK-GASL (formerly Microcraft, Inc.) of Tullahoma, Tenn., built both the X-43A aircraft and the scramjet engine, and Boeing Phantom Works, Huntington Beach, Calif., designed the thermal protection and onboard systems. The booster is a modified first stage of a Pegasus rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp, Chandler, Ariz.

NASA Photo by: Jeff Caplan/NASA Langley
Keywords: X-43A, Hyper-X, scramjet, Pegasus, hypersonic research aircraft

Last Modified: March 24, 2004
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