The cruise missiles so often used to destroy ISIS installations and other enemy targets descend like a flash out of the sky, traveling up to 600mph as they approach unsuspecting terrorist compounds, hideouts, and ammo storage facilities. But the impressive speed at which a cruise missile is propelled will seem like a proverbial stroll in the park when an awesome new generation of hypersonic “birds” take flight as an operating Air Force weapon system.
The website military.com reveals updated details of the progress the Air Force is making in the development of the X-51, the hypersonic air vehicle that’s expected to be in service within the next decade. Though it’s known as the “Waverider,” the X-51 certainly doesn’t “ride the waves” in a conventional sense — it travels far above water or land as it reaches speeds up to Mach 5 — many times faster than the speed of sound.
The secret to the X-51 Waverider’s remarkable speed lies in its advanced scramjet technology, which has reportedly been in development since at least 2004. According to the Air Force chief scientist working on the program, Mica Endsley, a successful test flight in 2013 showed the technology is workable at an exceptionally high speed. “A B-52H Stratofortress carried the X-51A on its wing before it was released at 50,000 feet and accelerated up to Mach 4.8 in 26 seconds. As the scramjet climbed to 60,000 feet it accelerated to Mach 5.1.”
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That kind of speed means the Waverider could conceivably travel across the United States — sea to shining sea — in about thirty minutes. It could scream across the Atlantic in close to an hour.
As military.com reports about the proof-of-concept test flight a couple of years ago:
“It showed that you could get a scramjet engine, launch it off an aircraft and it could go hypersonic. It was able to go more than Mach 5 until it ran out of fuel. It was a very successful test of an airborne hypersonic weapons system,” Endsley said.
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The complex challenge that lies ahead for the X-51 program involves producing materials and building equipment that can withstand the tremendous forces and pressures of hypersonic flight. Pentagon officials are said to be enthusiastic about the scramjet technology because the U.S. military would be able to have air delivery systems that cost less and require fewer parts than conventional turbine engines.
An animation recently released by the Air Force shows a conceptual rendering of what the X-51 might look like on a future mission. You can get a glimpse of the possible future of America’s military might by clicking on the video above.
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