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NASA DEVELOPING HYPERSONIC TECHNOLOGIES; FLIGHT VEHICLES ONLY DECADES AWAY
July 22, 2002
Imagine taking off from any U.S. airport and landing on any other runway in
the world in less than two hours. Or making a quick hop from that same
airport to the International Space Station and back -- a trip that normally
takes days or weeks -- to drop off science experiments, provisions and new
Not anymore. Technology now being developed by NASA and its partners could
-- within two decades -- achieve such rapid trip times, yielding limitless
possibilities for international travel, commerce and access to space.
And this week, they're going public with the hypersonic shape of things to
Visitors to the 50th annual Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture
Air Show, opening July 23 in Oshkosh, Wis., will be among the first to see
mockups of NASA's proposed "Hyper-X" series. These technology
demonstrators, intended for flight testing by decade's end, are expected to
yield a new generation of vehicles that routinely fly about 100,000 feet
above Earth's surface and reach sustained travel speeds in excess of Mach 5,
or about 3,750 mph -- the point at which "supersonic" flight becomes
It also may be the point at which traditional air transportation becomes as
outmoded as the covered wagon.
Technologies for 21st century flight
Revolutionizing the way we gain access to space is NASA's primary goal for
the Hypersonics Investment Area, managed for NASA by the Advanced Space
Transportation Program at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville,
The Hypersonics Investment Area -- which includes leading-edge partners in
industry and academia -- will support future-generation reusable launch
vehicles and improved access to space. Over the next 20 years, the U.S.
will develop and test a series of ground and flight demonstrators. The
flight demonstrators -- the Hyper-X series -- will be powered by
air-breathing rocket- or turbine-based engines and ram/scramjets.
Air-breathing engines for hypersonic applications are known as "combined
cycle" systems because they use a graduating series of propulsion systems in
flight to reach an optimum travel speed, or to leave the atmosphere
altogether. Air-breathing engines achieve their efficiency gains over
rocket systems by getting their oxygen for combustion from the atmosphere,
as opposed to a rocket which must carry its oxygen. These systems capture
air from the atmosphere during flight -- an arrangement that improves
efficiency up to 5-10 times greater than that of conventional chemical
Once a hypersonic vehicle has accelerated to more than twice the speed of
sound, the turbine or rockets are turned off, and the engine relies solely
on oxygen in the atmosphere to burn fuel. When the vehicle has accelerated
to more than 10 to 15 times the speed of sound, the engine converts to a
conventional rocket-powered system to propel the craft into orbit or sustain
its top suborbital flight speed.
Despite the astounding paradigm shift it promises for suborbital and orbital
flight, the concept of hypersonic flight is not a new one. NASA's
hypersonics program is built on research dating back to the 1950s.
But the new effort -- leveraging technology resources and manufacturing
capabilities unavailable 30 years ago -- is intended to yield practical
results before mid-century: a future fleet of government and commercial
hypersonic vehicles, traveling between dozens or even hundreds of "skyports"
around the world. And beyond it.
The Hyper-X series
NASA's series of hypersonic flight demonstrators includes three
air-breathing vehicles: the X-43A, X-43B and X-43C.
The X-43A, an unpiloted research craft mounted atop a modified Pegasus
booster rocket, was first flown in June 2001. During the flight, an
in-flight incident forced the mission to be aborted. NASA has planned three
X-43A flights; two more X-43A flight demonstrators, built in early 2002, are
being prepared for flight testing at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in
Edwards, Calif. Fueled by hydrogen, the X-43A is intended to achieve Mach 7
and possibly Mach 10, or speeds of approximately 5,000 and 7,500 mph,
The X-43C demonstrator, powered by a scramjet engine developed by the U.S.
Air Force, is now in development. The X-43C is expected to accelerate from
Mach 5 to Mach 7, reaching a maximum potential speed of about 5,000 mph.
NASA will begin flight-testing the X-43C in 2008.
The largest of the Hyper-X test vehicles, the X-43B, could be developed --
and would fly -- later this decade. Successful ground- and flight-testing
of various engine configurations aboard the X-43A and X-43C will determine
whether a rocket- or turbine-based combined-cycle engine powers the X-43B.
All three X-43 flight demonstrator projects are managed by NASA's Langley
Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Next-generation flight solutions
NASA expects to spend about $700 million on hypersonics research and
development over the next five years, according to Steve Cook, deputy
manager of Marshall's Advanced Space Transportation Program. Cook
anticipates the investment will yield unprecedented results, opening up new
commercial markets for industry, furthering human and robotic exploration of
the solar system and significantly improving national security.
"Testing conducted over the last four years proves that air-breathing
propulsion is the most promising technology we've seen to date for
accomplishing NASA's third-generation space transportation goals," Cook
Those goals -- focusing on radically safer, more reliable and less expensive
access to space -- permeate not just the Hypersonics Technology Program, but
all NASA's space transportation and propulsion systems programs.
NASA's Space Launch Initiative, managed by the Marshall Center, is working
to develop the technology for a second-generation vehicle that could lead to
a replacement for the first-generation Space Shuttle by 2012 -- providing a
vastly safer, more cost efficient and more reliable fleet of vehicles. The
third-generation program seeks, by the year 2025, to develop advanced
reusable launch vehicles and associated flight and transportation
technologies that will allow for even more significant reductions in payload
costs, and even greater improvements in safety and reliability.
More about NASA's Hypersonics Team
NASA is leading national research into hypersonics systems development,
analysis and integration. Spearheaded by the Marshall Center, the program
includes researchers at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.;
Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif.; Glenn Research Center in
Cleveland, Ohio; Kennedy Space Center, Fla.; Langley Research Center in
Hampton, Va.; and the Air Force Research Laboratory, which encompasses
research and development facilities at nine U.S. Air Force bases. NASA is
also partnering with leading academic institutions and industry partners
around the nation.
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