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The X-43 was an experimental unmanned hypersonic aircraft with multiple planned scale variations meant to test various aspects of hypersonic flight. It was part of the X-plane series and specifically of NASA's Hyper-X program. It set several airspeed records for jet aircraft. The X-43 is the fastest aircraft on record attaining speeds of approximately Mach 9.6.
A winged booster rocket with the X-43 placed on top, called a "stack", was drop launched from a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. After the booster rocket (a modified first stage of the Pegasus rocket) brought the stack to the target speed and altitude, it was discarded and the X-43 flew using its own engine, a scramjet.
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The first plane in the series, the X-43A, was a single-use vehicle. Three of them were built. The first was destroyed after malfunctioning in flight; the other two flew successfully, with the scramjet operating for approximately 10 seconds, followed by a 10-minute glide and intentional crash into the ocean.
NASA flew a third version of the X-43A on November 16, 2004. The modified Pegasus rocket was launched from a B-52 mother ship at an altitude of 43,000 ft (13,000 m). The X-43A set a new speed record of Mach 9.6 at about 110,000 feet (33,500 m) altitude and further tested the ability of the vehicle to withstand the heat loads involved.
After the X-43 tests in 2004, NASA Dryden engineers said that they expected all of their efforts to culminate in the production of a two-stage-to-orbit crewed vehicle in about 20 years. The scientists expressed much doubt that there would be a single-stage-to-orbit crewed vehicle like the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) in the foreseeable future.
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