New scramjet has promising future

  • Published
  • By Christen N. McCluney
  • Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
The Air Force Research Laboratory's X-51A Waverider, a hypersonic flight test demonstrator, broke aviation records during its initial launch last week.

The Waverider flew for over 200 seconds and reached a speed of approximately Mach 5 - nearly 4,000 miles per hour -- on May 26 during a flight from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. During the test the team was able to receive between 140 and 170 seconds of clean engine data and it was the longest-ever hypersonic flight powered by a supersonic combustion ramjet engine.

"It's been about a six-year effort," Charlie Brink, Air Force Research Laboratory's X-51A Scramjet Engine Demonstrator program manager said during a "DoDLive" bloggers roundtable June 1. "We've been designing and analyzing this and getting prepared for the flight test program."

The Waverider, a hypersonic scramjet-powered vehicle, was created as part of a joint collaboration between the Air Force, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, NASA and the Navy. The program, Brink said, demonstrates the viability of scramjet engine technology in propelling an aerospace vehicle.

"This is a pretty-significant milestone for us, having flight data now," said George Thum, X-51A program manager for Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which built the SJY61 supersonic combustion ramjet engine that is the heart of the cruiser.

"From a standpoint of the objectives of the program, I think that we're really pleased with the results," Brink said.

Joseph Vogel, of Boeing Phantom Works/Defense, Space and Security director of the Hypersonic X-51A program, observed that the ramjet cruiser met nearly all of the test parameters until the mission was terminated.

"The fact that we were successful says that we will move forward and [will] likely build more of these at some point in time," Vogel said. He added that although there is no commitment from the government, that based on what they've accomplished there is a great likelihood for future development.

There are three remaining X-51A vehicles that the program intends to fly later this fall, depending on the data review the team is going through and available funding, Brink said.

With the data collected from this program, he said, hypersonic air breathing propulsion technology could have a future in such things like hypersonic weapons that fly 600 nautical miles in 10 minutes, providing the ability to engage long-distance target very quickly.

Brink also sees a use for scramjet engine technology in future space lift systems, getting rid of oxidizer tanks, and making flights to orbit more efficient.

"If the government continues to invest in this technology ... I would say that within the next 15-to-30 [years] you could start to see this technology being expanded to the point where you could get aircraft into outer space," Vogel said.

"We're excited about the future of this technology, Thum added. "Fundamentally, it's an efficient system that has a lot of future potential application."