Experimental Hypersonic X-51A WaveRider Crashes in Pacific Ocean

on August 15, 2012 11:42 PM EDT

X-51A waverider
Seen here being attached to a B-52 in 2011, the X-51A crashed over the Pacific Ocean during a test flight yesterday. (Photo: USAF/Edwards Air Force Base)

During yesterday's test flight of the hypersonic X-51A WaveRider, a fatal fault caused the unmanned vehicle to crash into the Pacific Ocean. This was the third attempt to fly the WaveRider, a vehicle intended to fly at speeds five times the speed of sound and demonstrate an advanced hypersonic scramjet engine.

After being carried 50,000 feet aloft by a B-52, the X-51A and its booster rocket were released from the jet. The rocket kicked in but just sixteen seconds later, the WaveRider reportedly developed a fault in one of its control fins. When the vehicle separated from the rocket fifteen seconds after the initial failure, it lost control and crashed into the ocean.

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"It is unfortunate that a problem with this subsystem caused a termination before we could light the Scramjet engine," said WaveRider program manager Charlie Brink, as quoted by Flight Global. "All our data showed we had created the right conditions for engine ignition and we were very hopeful to meet our test objectives."

Flight Global goes on to cite a statement from the Air Force which notes that the failed control subsystem had worked perfectly in previous tests.

The WaveRider's scramjet engine is designed to achieve hypersonic speeds -- that is, traveling at more than five times the speed of sound or more than 4,000 miles per hour. Though it can reach incredible speeds it can only operate at supersonic speeds, and needs to be accelerated to around Mach 4.5 by rocket booster.

In addition to its scramjet, the WaveRider is designed to "ride" the shockwaves it creates in the air for added lift.

Unlike normal jet engines, scramjets and their ramjet cousins do not use fans or turbines to compress the air entering the engine. Instead, these engines have no moving parts and mix the fast-moving compressed air entering the engine with fuel and ignite it. The result is tremendous speed, perhaps between 12 and 24 times the speed of sound. Better yet, these engines can reach such speeds without having to carry oxidizing agents to burn fuel, as rockets do.

The X-51A is designed to help further the development of hypersonic aircraft. However, in Wired's report on the WaveRider, they note that a WaveRider type craft could be used as a high-speed weapons delivery platform for "prompt global strike."

Though the X-51A has flown twice before -- once in May 2010 and again in June 2011 -- all three flights have ended with unsatisfactory results. The first flight was the most promising, with the craft reaching speeds over Mach 5 for over 200 seconds but still short of the 300 second planned goal. The flight did, however, set a record for the longest sustained hyperosnic flight.

This most recent failure of the WaveRider is particularly stinging as DARPA's Hypersonic Technology Vehicle was also lost during a Mach 20 test last year. In April 2012, the agency announced that this high-speed glider had failed because its skin began to peel off or, as they put it, experienced "unexpected aeroshell degradation."

While a third failure is certainly a setback to the $300 million WaveRider program, it may not be over. The Air Force reportedly has a fourth X-51A, but has yet to decide if this program deserves another try.

The video above shows the X-51 prior to its first test flight in 2010.

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