Thursday, August 16, 2012

Missed it by that much

The U.S. Air Force tried to fly an air-breathing aircraft for about five minutes at Mach 5--roughly 3,600 miles per hour--yesterday. They failed.

It's the third time they have test-flown this one-of-a-kind system, called the X-51. The first test went relatively well; the novel propulsion system, a "scramjet," or supersonic-combustion ramjet, ran for more than two minutes before a seal blew somewhere and the whole thing stopped working:

In the second test, the scramjet never ignited.

In the most recent test, a control surface failed.

It's all very frustrating because there is a huge amount of promise in being able to propel an aircraft at those speeds, where normal jet engines won't work. The Air Force has shown that the scramjet concept does, indeed, work, but can't seem to get the whole X-51 to function the way it should. The test yesterday, for instance, is like failing to bake a cake because you tripped on the way to the kitchen: it has nothing to do with cake-baking but is necessary to get it done. The scramjet never got a chance to turn on because an unrelated system crapped out.

This, by the way, is roughly the same sort of failure that has kept DARPA's Falcon project from working properly.

I can't help but think that NASA has a much better record with experimental craft and high-risk missions. I don't think it's fair to say that scientists there are any smarter or more detail-oriented than those at military research agencies. I do, however, have a sneaking suspicion that when your budget is shrinking, you work extra hard to make sure you stick the incredibly challenging landing... and secure more funding for the next big step.

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