Just 65 years after humans toppled the sound barrier, an experimental jet designed to reach speeds of over six times the speed of sound may be ushering in the era of hypersonic flight.
Boeing’s X-51A WaveRider, so named because it rides its own shock wave, was launched unmanned from a B-52 bomber off the coast of Southern California on Tuesday in an attempt to achieve and sustain a speed of 3,600 mph, or Mach 6, for at least five minutes.
As of early Wednesday morning, there was no official word as to whether the mission succeeded or failed, although technology magazine Wired tweeted that the “X-51A failed its flight test; a fin problem caused a loss of control b4 the engine could kick in.”
The jet is now thought to be resting at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
The launch was just the latest in a series of tests that may eventually make regular hypersonic travel a reality. The WaveRider is being developed by and for the military, but, if it proves viable, many hope the technology will filter into wider, civilian use.
“Attaining sustained hypersonic flight is like going from propeller-driven aircraft to jet aircraft,” Robert A. Mercier, an Air Force Research Laboratory engineer, told the Los Angeles Times.
So how fast is six times the speed of sound? Right now, a typical commercial jet will fly from New York to Los Angeles in about 5 1/2 hours, while a hypersonic jet traveling at Mach 6 would make the trip in about 40 minutes. Flash forward to the far distant future, and that would mean people living on the West Coast could literally commute to the East Coast daily for work.
The fastest commercial aircraft in history, the now defunct Concorde, would have made that journey in just under two hours. The Concorde could achieve supersonic speeds, one step below hypersonic, with an average cruising speed of 1,354 mph, which is just north of Mach 2.
And, yes, a hypersonic jet is faster than a speeding bullet. A bullet fired from a high-performance rifle will travel just under 3,000 mph–never reaching Mach 5.
Incidentally, there is a mode of human transportation that is many times faster than a hypersonic plane. Astronauts re-entering the atmosphere from orbit can reach speeds of up to Mach 25. A trip from New York to Los Angeles at Mach 25 would last just 10 minutes.