NASA smashes speed record

The unpiloted X-43A aircraft used a scramjet engine to briefly reach a speed of 7,700 km/h (4,780 mph) or Mach 7.

It was launched from a B-52 bomber off the coast of California, and then flew for 10 seconds on its own power before gliding for six minutes and then falling into the Pacific Ocean.

NASA spokeswoman Leslie Williams said: “Everything went according to plan. I actually thought it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. We’ve been waiting a few years.”

Rather than carrying both the fuel and oxygen needed to provide acceleration, like a conventional rocket engine does, scramjet engines carry only hydrogen fuel and pull the oxygen needed to burn that fuel from the atmosphere.

Ms Williams said: “It doesn’t have any moving parts. You have to get it up to at least Mach five because the air must go through supersonically to make it work.

“It scoops the oxygen, rams oxygen into the inlet and then comes out the end, out the nozzle in the back as thrust. So it really has no moving parts except for the front engine door… and scramjets have been around actually for 30-something years but like I said it’s only been done in ground testing facilities, it’s never been done in free flight.”

The success of the NASA test, which comes three years after an attempt to fly an X-43A ended in the destruction of the vehicle when its launch system failed, was hailed by project manager Joel Sitz.

He said: “The ramjet-scramjet is the Holy Grail of aeronautics in my mind.”

Researchers at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Centre at Edwards Air Force Base, on the western edge of the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles, hope the new engine will revolutionise aviation, speeding the development of significantly faster aircraft and lowering the cost of launching payloads.

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