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NASA's Hyper-X Program Demonstrates Scramjet Technologies

X-43A Flight Makes Aviation History

Pegasus booster rocket ignites, accelerating the X-43A -- mounted on the nose of the rocket -- over the Pacific Ocean in March 2004
Image above: A modified Pegasus booster rocket ignites moments after release from the B-52B, beginning the acceleration of the X-43A over the Pacific Ocean in March of 2004. The X-43A vehicle is mounted on the nose of the rocket. Credit: NASA

NASA made aviation history with the first and second successful flights of a scramjet-powered airplane at hypersonic speeds -- speeds greater than Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound. Compared to a rocket-powered vehicle like the Space Shuttle, scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) powered vehicles promise more airplane-like operations for increased affordability, flexibility and safety for ultra highspeed flights within the atmosphere and into Earth orbit. Because they do not have to carry bulky oxygen tanks, as rockets must, vehicles powered by air-breathing scramjets can be smaller and lighter.

Researchers have worked for decades to demonstrate scramjet technologies, first in wind tunnels and computer simulations, and now in an airplane in flight. Ultimate applications include future hypersonic missiles, hypersonic airplanes, the first stage of two-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicles and single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicles.

NASA Langley Research Center
 Hyper-X logo
X-43A Flight Makes Aviation History
The first and second successful hypersonic flights of a scramjet-powered airplane.
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 U.S. Army infrared image of the Mach 6.8 flight of the second X-43A scramjet on March 27, 2004
High Risk, High Payoff
Though careful analysis and design minimized the risks, Hyper-X was a bold step.
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 Test a full-scale model of the Hyper-X vehicle at Mach 7 in a NASA Langley wind tunnel
The Record-Breaking Flights
During its third flight, the X-43A flew at about 7,000 miles per hour.
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 Still image of the Hyper-X vehicle in flight taken from an artist's animation
2001 Flight and Investigation
On the first Hyper-X flight attempt, the booster failed.
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 This graphic explains how air and fuel mix at supersonic speeds inside a scramjet engine
How Scramjets Work
In a scramjet, even the airflow through the engine remains supersonic.
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