The highly anticipated launch of the X-51A supersonic vehicle went off over the Pacific Ocean as planned today, though like previous tests, this one didn’t go off according to plan, according to Business Insider reporting on a tweet from Wired’s Danger Room, who described the test as a total failure with the craft breaking up before approaching high speed. Mail Online is confirming that a test occurred, but says the Pentagon would only confirm the craft separated from the B-52 that was carrying it under a wing and that the B-52 returned safely to base.
The X-51A is a craft unlike any other ever developed due to its special type of engine. Research has suggested that it should be capable of pushing an aircraft at speeds up to Mach 6, which would mean air travel between the US and Europe would take just under an hour. Online explains that instead of mixing air and gas fumes, as is done with conventional jet engines, a scramjet mixes oxygen from the air with fuel as it passes through a chamber, creating super high pressure which causes the gas to combust. The fast it goes, the better it works, though the same cannot be said of the plane that carries it. This is the second test of the scramjet engine in a real craft, and thus far, apparently, both have resulted in complete failure. In this second instance, it appears there was a problem with the fins on the back of the craft that caused a loss of control. There was no pilot onboard, thus there were no injuries or fatalities as the craft veered off course until eventually crashing into the ocean.
The military had high hopes for this test, the Insider says, even suggesting before the test that the results would mark the first baby steps in supersonic travel. The craft was supposed to drop from beneath the wing of the B-52, wait long enough for the plane to put some distance between the two, then engage, reaching a top speed of 4000 miles per hour within seconds. After 300 seconds, the craft was scheduled to shut off and drift down into the sea. Instead, it appears it smashed into the ocean at several hundred miles per hour, taking with it possible evidence of whatever caused the failure.
Online adds that research on scramjet engines and craft for carrying them have been under study for over a decade, with the military leading the charge. A craft that could fly at Mach 6 would outrun anything else in the sky, including missiles fired with the intent to bring it down.
Because the mission was considered secret, the military is not expected to make any announcements regarding the fate of the vehicle and when and if another test will be scheduled.