In the first minutes Top Shooter: MaverickPete “Maverick” Mitchell flies the fictional SR-72 Darkstar at speeds in excess of Mach 10, becoming the fastest man on earth. However, in real life, we are still far from accomplishing such a feat. At least on manned ships. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t projects for hypersonic spacecraft trying to reach double-digit Mach numbers. The loudest case without a doubt NASA X-43.

We are talking about a small unmanned vehicle that reached a speed of Mach 10 and got into the Guinness Book of Records as fastest jet car in history. Its history is very interesting as it represents the first great hypersonic experiment tested in the 21st century. And while it is true that its development was canceled when only the initial phase of the project was completed, the data obtained was crucial for similar initiatives that appeared years later.

Below, we’ll take a look at the most important details of NASA’s X-43, a short-lived project that produced very outstanding results.

NASA X-43: in search of new limits

The X-43 is mounted on the nose of a launch vehicle under the wing of a B-52 bomber. | Photo: Dryden Flight Research Center – NASA (Public domain).

The NASA X-43 program was born in the late 1990s and was not intended to develop a single aircraft. In fact, versions of different sizes and specifications were supposed to be created and tested in order to experiment with all aspects related to hypersonic flight; that is, all those that exceed Mach 5.

The project involved the production of four variants at different stages. However, only three units of the initial version called X-43A were manufactured, of which two managed to successfully fly.

The first NASA X-43 model mentioned was only 3.7 meters long and weighed about 1,400 kilograms. The unmanned vehicle had practically no wings, as it was developed as part of the concept of a carrier fuselage. Downstairs was supersonic ramjet engine (reactive plane), which turned on when the car was already in the air.

In case you haven’t noticed already, NASA didn’t think of the X-43 as a plane that could take off or land on its own. To launch it, it was installed on a special attachment point of a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber specially prepared for this case. But not only that, the hypersonic craft was assembled on the tip of a Pegasus launch vehicle, which gave it its initial thrust. Subsequently, he broke off and continued the flight under its own power.

And since these were disposable prototypes, at the end of the experiment they crashed into the ocean to destroy them safely.

Two successful flights

NASA X-43 development team. | Photo: Dryden Flight Research Center – NASA (Public domain).

NASA first attempted to launch the X-43 in June 2001, but the test ended in failure. Just seconds after being fired from the B-52, the Pegasus missile malfunctioned, causing it to deviate from its trajectory and forcing the engineers to destroy it at a distance to avoid more harm.

The incident meant a delay of nearly three years for the unmanned spacecraft to resume flight. The second vehicle took to the air in March 2004, marking the first major milestone in the program. reached top speed Mach 6.83 on a flight in which hydrogen fuel was supplied to the engine for 11 seconds.

In November of that year, NASA conducted the third and final test flight of the X-43. In it, the ship widely broke the previous record and reached its maximum speed. Mach 9.6 (+10,000 kilometers per hour). This brought him recognition from the outside Guinness Book of Recordsboth recordings were included in the 2006 edition of his popular book.

impressive car

The bowels of a NASA hypersonic spacecraft.

NASA has never detailed the characteristics of the X-43, although some interesting data has been obtained over the years. A presentation at a meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, dated 2006, allowed for a somewhat deeper study of the qualities of unmanned spacecraft.

One of the biggest challenges for developers was heat shield work, taking into account the extremely high temperatures that occur during hypersonic flight. For the X-43, NASA decided to include carbon fiber reinforced carbon in the leading edge of the nose and wings. Tungsten was used for the nose, while the wings and vertical stabilizers were made from an alloy supplied by Haynes International.

The rest of the plane’s body was protected by dozens of tiles. ATB (Aluminum Oxide Reinforced Thermal Barrier) coated YOU FI (Reinforced solid fiber insulation).

Versions of the X-43 not developed by NASA

Despite two successful flights in 2004, the NASA X-43 program was canceled after just a couple of years. All efforts to further develop supersonic ramjet technology were assigned to the US Air Force.

Another prototype of an unmanned hypersonic aircraft, which received baptism Boeing X-51 Waverider, managed to successfully fly only in 2013 at a speed of Mach 5.1. Said vehicle used an engine originally planned for the X-43C, a variant of NASA’s original model that was never realized.

Boeing X-51A, direct descendant of the X-43. | Photo: US Air Force (Public domain).

Had it progressed as originally intended, NASA would have developed three more variants of X-43. They would have been B, C and D denominated and had different purposes. Among the many tests of various sizes and power plants, as well as the suitability of hydrocarbon fuels to power reactive plane. Even the possibility of increasing the speed of the aircraft over Mach 10 and reaching at least Mach 15 was predicted.

“NASA is interested in technology reactive plane supersonic combustion because the engines get oxygen from the atmosphere. This allows for more aircraft-like operations for greater accessibility, flexibility and safety in ultra-fast flight and in the first phase of Earth orbit. As soon as a vehicle with an engine reactive plane accelerated to about Mach 4 with a conventional jet engine or rocket booster, it can fly to hypersonic speeds, perhaps up to Mach 15, without a heavy oxidizer, as rockets should do, ”the US space agency explained at the time.

The truth is that NASA X-43 remained as a memory. While advances in supersonic flight technology continue to evolve, their civil or commercial applications are still a long way off.

Source: Hiper Textual

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