X-43A Research Vehicle at engine firing, 2000

Nasa's X-43A Plane

Location: Hampton, Virginia
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On November 16, 2004, the NASA X-43A scramjet, an unmanned experimental aircraft designed to test beyond highsupersonic flight speeds, broke the world speed record for an air-breathing (jet) aircraft, traveling at Mach 9.8, nearly 7,000 miles per hour, at an altitude of 110,000 feet. Before the X-43A flights, the previous air-breathing record of Mach 5 was held by a missile, and the previous speed record for any form of winged aircraft had stood since the rocket-powered X-15 flights in 1967 reached nearly Mach 7—a remarkable span of thirty-eight years. The only manmade winged object that has traveled faster than the X-43A is NASA’s Space Shuttle, which did so outside the earth’s atmosphere.

These amazing speeds are achieved through a distinctive wedge-shaped design and the employment of a supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet. The scramjet has no moving parts, and achieves its thrust by compressing air at very high speed into a constricted tube. Such a design is necessary for hypersonic flight, where conventional jet engines cannot function.

The X-43A was carried aloft by the oldest B-52 on flying status, and launched from an altitude of 40,000 feet. A rocket booster then carried the X-43A to an altitude of over 100,000 feet and accelerated to test-condition speeds. The rocket booster then fell off, and the X-43A flew under its own power for approximately ten seconds on a programmed flight profile. Afterwards, the craft made a planned crash landing in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA originally built three X-43A aircraft. One was lost in 2001 when it spun out of control after dropping from the B-52 carrier plane. The second X-43A flew successfully on March 27, 2004, and set a speed record of Mach 7. The third X-43A achieved the current speed record, covering approximately two miles per second.

The X-43A is part of the X-plane series of aircraft dating back to the 1947 X-1, the first aircraft ever to beak the sound barrier. NASA’s Hyper-X program involved ATK GASL, Boeing, and Orbital Sciences Corporation. Hyper-X is conducted jointly by the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and the Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.